Intense contests are expected in the new frontline states of Negri Sembilan, Johor, Sarawak and Sabah, observes Johan Saravanamuttu.
The 13th general election, to be held on 5 May, promises to be the toughest ever to be fought between the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR).
What are the so-called new frontline states in the capture and defence of Putrajaya? I take “frontline states” to mean those that will be defended or won at the state level, and those that could deliver more parliamentary seats to the opposition.
Kelantan, Kedah, Penang and Selangor are frontline states for the PR to defend, while Perak is an important frontline state for the BN to keep, since it was taken over after the 2008 general election.
Added to the mix now are Negri Sembilan, Johor, Sarawak and Sabah, where the PR is targeting its state governments and, more importantly, the capture of parliamentary seats in new terrain.
The PR is banking on a continuation of the non-Malay swing of 2008 and a splitting of the Malay vote, which the 16 by-elections held since 2008 — in which each side scored an equal number of wins — appear to affirm.
First, a brief word: in Penang and Kelantan, few back the BN’s chances of a takeover, while in Selangor and Perak, the pundits are talking about 50-50 odds.
In Kedah, Pas is said to be weak under Mentri Besar Azizan Abdul Razak, with the party dogged by internal squabbles, a poor public policy record, and unpopular actions, such as the stopping of stage shows and karaoke lounges, which has irked non-Muslims.
The prospect of Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s son Mukhriz as a potential mentri besar has also created a small stir. The BN would need to capture five more seats to overtake the PR in the 36-seat state assembly, in which the PR holds 20 seats.
The irony for BN is that the converse could happen in Negri Sembilan, a new frontline state, where BN has only a slim majority in the 36-seat state assembly. PR, with 15 seats, is four seats short of assuming power in the state. The key factor lies in the weakness of the non-Malay coalition partners of Umno — the MCA, MIC and the virtually non-existent Gerakan in this state.
State Opposition Leader Anthony Loke of the DAP will lead the charge in contesting Chennah, a seat which has a mixed constituency of 54 per cent Chinese, 41 per cent Malays, and 3 per cent Indians. In 2008, the MCA candidate had won this constituency by fewer than 1,300 votes.
It is in such seats that the DAP generally holds an advantage, with the swing of Chinese voters to the opposition. (It is worth noting that Loke was the MP for Rasah, a constituency with a similar ethnic make-up which he won in 2008 by more than 13,000 votes against his MCA opponent.)
Shift in Johor
This leads us to Johor. How could this state, in which the PR took only one parliamentary and six state seats previously, be now seen as “front line”?
PR’s fate rests mainly upon Chinese votes and the “battle royale” building between the DAP and the MCA in Johor.
The MCA has floundered as a party wracked by factionalism ever since Dr Chua Soi Lek won the leadership struggle in 2009. This explains in no small measure the erosion of Chinese support in BN’s erstwhile bastion of Johor.
DAP party strategist Liew Chin Tong (who will stand in Kluang) describes Johor’s seats as having become “dominos”. Somewhat optimistically, he thinks that some 20 seats could fall to the PR. This is premised on the expectation of 35 per cent Malay, 80 per cent Chinese and 50 per cent Indian support in the state, and the fact that most Johor seats are of the mixed variety.
Only in eight out of Johor’s 26 parliamentary seats do Malays make up more than 60 per cent of voters. No seat has more than 60 per cent of Chinese voters.
Johor has also been targeted by PKR and Pas. PKR’s Johor party chief Chua Jui Meng was formerly vice-president of the MCA and BN minister for health, but he is now a firm PKR man who will run in Segamat. Pas will send vice-president Salahuddin Ayub to contest the Pulai parliamentary seat and the Nusa Jaya state seat, with the distant hope that he could be made the Johor mentri besar.
Sarawak and Sabah
Let me briefly turn to Sarawak and Sabah. Analysts have alluded to the winds of “new politics” blowing into the Borneo states. In the Sarawak state election of April 2011, PR took 15 state seats with the DAP having the lion’s share of 12. The election also saw the collapse of the Chinese-backed Sarawak United Peoples’ Party, with the defeat of its leader George Chan.
Translated into parliamentary constituencies, the state election results could mean up to 10 seats out of 31 going to PR in GE13. Even Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud has conceded that four to eight seats will fall to the opposition.
The situation in Sabah is much more intriguing and fluid and, many will concede, very hard to call. The ongoing Royal Commission of Inquiry on illegal immigration, the intrusion of the Muslim Suluks, the emergence of PR-friendly vehicles led by former BN leaders, not to mention the defection of erstwhile PR leaders and new tensions within that party, all suggest that some changes will occur.
This still may not change much in terms of the state-of-play for the 25 parliamentary seats in total. But a gain of a few seats for the PR — more than its miserly one at the last outing — could be on the cards. More interestingly, should there be a hung Parliament, Sabah’s non-affiliated MPs could become kingmakers.
In short, the 5 May polls will no doubt raise the political temperature and bring to a boil five years of ceaseless politicking in the country.