Friday, March 11, 2011

Pas in a quandary over Malay vote loss


By Zubaidah Abu Bakar
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Barisan Nasional and Pas supporters were out in force on polling day in Merlimau last week. — NST picture by Rosdan Wahid
Barisan Nasional and Pas supporters were out in force on polling day in Merlimau last week. — NST picture by Rosdan Wahid
Pas is rejecting claims of declining support among the Malay electorate but the party’s actions do not reflect such confidence, writes ZUBAIDAH ABU BAKAR
THE talk in Umno is that it has regained the Malay support, with recent by-election results bolstering that conclusion.

In the opposite camp, Pas leaders claim its traditional Malay supporters have remained loyal. They say it is the fence-sitters who have switched to Umno.

Political watchers familiar with Malay politics have mixed views on whether Umno is gaining Malay support at the expense of Pas.
To these outsiders, the issue is whether those who voted for Umno candidates in recent by-elections were returning votes, that is, from Umno members and supporters who voted for the opposition in 2008 as a mark of protest.

Their argument is based on the fact that recent by-elections, with the exception of Merlimau, were in rural constituencies where support has always been for the ruling Barisan Nasional, the coalition that Umno leads.

"Umno candidates winning a series of by-elections in Malay-majority constituencies showed that support for Umno has increased," said Umno information chief Datuk Ahmad Maslan.

Ahmad said the Felda vote remained solidly with Umno.

In Tenang, Felda voters from three settlements contributed 63 per cent of the majority garnered by the Umno candidate; votes from Kerdau's three Felda settlements contributed 40 per cent of Umno's winning majority.

"Pas is making all sorts of claims but the party won only an extra two votes in Jengka 25, from 41 votes in 2008 to 43 in the recent by-election," said the deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Department.

But for Pas' Datuk Wan Abdul Rahim Wan Abdullah to say that Umno is enjoying an increase in Malay support based on its by-election performances is misleading.

"It is a coincidence that these by-elections -- in Manik Urai, Galas, Tenang and Kerdau -- with the exception of Merlimau, were in rural constituencies where the majority of voters are traditional Umno supporters.

"Voters there are less exposed to information from alternative sources, they depend largely on radio and television. In fact, Pas support has always been weakest in the Felda settlements where the majority of Malay voters are concentrated," said the party's deputy election director.

Assoc Prof Shaharuddin Baharuddin does not believe it is safe for Umno to celebrate yet.

The political analyst at Universiti Teknologi Mara said while support for Umno in certain areas was increasing, detailed analysis of past by-election results did not point to declining support for the party's main rival.

"Support for Pas is intact because the party has hardcore followers in Kerdau and in Merlimau. In both areas, it is the fence-sitters and Umno supporters who rejected the party in the last general election who had returned to Umno's fold.

"Umno retained Tenang with a bigger majority but Pas actually lost fewer than 200 votes. Those were definitely not the votes of Pas' traditional supporters," he said.

Nevertheless, Umno's string of by-election victories is causing jitters in Pas. There is genuine fear in the party that it may lose more Malay support if it remains in league with the secular DAP and multiracial Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

Pas, despite rejecting claims that the party is losing support from the Malay electorate, held a National Race Empowerment Convention last month, which was seen as an attempt to attract Malay support.

Pas leaders, including spiritual adviser Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, tried to convince the Malays that they had not been sidelined at the convention, which was aimed at silencing critics who had denounced the party for aligning itself with DAP.

In July last year, the Kelantan menteri besar of 20 years called on the party faithful attending the annual muktamar (assembly) to focus on increasing Malay support.

Pas president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang made a similar call in November.

A Malay group, Teras Pengupayaan Melayu (Teras), had emphasised at last month's Pas convention that Pas would not gain the trust and support of Malays if it still did not understand their economic woes and find solutions to them.

Teras chairman Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid said Pas was still unable to gain maximum support from its core constituency and warned the party that it could not guarantee Malays their rights if it overlooked the economic problems faced by the community in the country.

Prof Datuk Mohamed Mustafa Ishak, head of the politics, security and international affairs cluster of the National Council of Professors, said Pas was at a crossroads.

While the party risks a split in the loose opposition coalition should it attempt to champion the Malays, it also risks a continuing erosion of Malay support should it remain loyal to DAP and PKR.

Pas has given too much credence to the assumption that the 2008 "political tsunami" had wiped out ethnic politics in Malaysia. It has not and will not go away easily. Ethnicity is still a foundation of Malaysian politics.

"One should not underestimate the power of ethnicity as most parties, including the so-called non-ethnic parties like DAP and PKR, depend on ethnic politics to survive. Pas basically is a Malay-based party," Mustafa said.

Pas leaders may prefer to brush aside concerns about the purported fall in Malay support for it. But the party is desperate enough about winning Malay votes that the Pas-led Kelantan government recently banned the sale of lottery tickets, a move that upset the DAP and other Chinese-majority parties.

Read more: Pas in a quandary over Malay vote loss

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