Side Views

Prosperity, piety and politics ― Afif Pasuni

April 17, 2013

APRIL 17 ― With 45 state seats and 14 parliamentary seats up for grabs, Kelantan is a key battleground in Malaysia’s 13th general election — and one that is seeing a vital interplay of religion and economic factors given that 95 per cent of its population is Malay-Muslim.

PAS has been in power for 22 years, beginning in 1990 when the Islamist party, as part of a coalition, swept all 39 state seats. While PAS did well in most subsequent elections, the Barisan Nasional (BN) almost caused an upset in 2004 when it won 21 state seats, mainly on the back of positive voter sentiment for Abdullah Badawi’s premiership. In terms of parliamentary seats, however, BN has won only one or two in recent elections, save in 2004 when it stole eight.

Economic development is a popular election issue in Malaysia’s poorer states, of which Kelantan is one. PAS, for instance, claims that the royalty for its oil production is being unfairly withheld by the federal government. Nonetheless, the PAS state government also claims Kelantan’s economic growth in recent years has been higher than the national average.

On its part, BN is offering Kelantan voters a slew of economic injections, including a new highway, stadium, public housing projects, upgraded public transport system and university. A new mosque, touted as the largest in Kelantan and expected to cost some RM50 million, is one of the more significant items in a long list of promised investments as BN attempts to appeal to voters’ religiosity.

Indeed, a key reason for PAS’ continued success in Kelantan is its Mentri Besar Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, regarded as a pious leader by followers. While economic development in Kelantan under PAS lags behind that of many states, the party commands a higher degree of legitimacy as its leaders are seen to be more upright than those from the ruling parties.

Furthermore, the PAS policy of restrained consumption contrasts with BN’s perceived extravagance, an issue that could resonate with the 150,000 urbanite Kelantan voters (out of 900,000 in total) who are mainly based in Malaysia’s capital.

PAS’s close relationship with the opposition coalition is not likely to dent its conservative support base, if the 2008 election results are anything to go by. In recent years, PAS has appeared to be more open than the secular Umno party, even fielding a Christian candidate for the coming election.

This image is balanced out by the more conservative elements within the party, and even cancelled out at times by PAS’s conservative stance on religious issues. Thus, the party’s appeal is likely to remain high among Kelantan’s Malay-Muslim voters.

Still, there is hope for BN’s Umno in Kelantan. The party showed what it was capable of in 2004 when it almost took control of the state government. But the Umno state leadership that nearly achieved victory was removed in 2008, a move many described as sabotage by Umno factions.

While reconciliation seems to have taken place, internal politicking has always been Umno’s Achilles heel. There has been talk of Umno stalwart Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s newly-formed group Amanah as potential kingmakers, reviving memories of his Semangat 46 party, which temporarily allied with the opposition.

Although facing a seemingly uphill battle, several factors could help BN make considerable headway in Kelantan. Firstly, the numbers suggest a 7 to 8 per cent vote swing may be enough to reverse the tide. In the 2004 polls, the popular vote was very closely split down the middle. In 2008, despite a lacklustre performance, BN still obtained 43 per cent of the popular vote. So a small swing in their favour could be sufficient for a surprise victory.

In addition, there are six state seats in which the Chinese community plays a key role, and this is where caretaker prime minister Najib Razak’s 1 Malaysia policy might just sway voters. While the PAS has been keen to promote its new image, its controversial stance on several religious issues could drive away non-Muslim support from the Pakatan Rakyat.

In what promises to be one of the most intense national elections in Malaysia’s history, some estimates have projected that BN will edge out the opposition in terms of total parliamentary seats won. As such, every single seat is important. In Kelantan, where it has long been regarded as the underdog, even an above-average performance could be crucial to returning BN to Putrajaya.

For PAS, Kelantan is the litmus test for the party’s support — on whether the changes wrought by its alliance with the opposition coalition prove worthwhile, or if it will be punished severely for them. ― Today

* Afif Pasuni is an associate research fellow in the Malaysia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This is part of a series by RSIS contributors on the election.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.