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Since gaining landslide victory in the March 2004 general election, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has continued to 'reign' by winning three consecutive by-elections. It retained the two state seats it won in the previous general election and wrestled another from the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS). In the August 2004 by-election for the Kuala Berang state seat in the Malay-majority state of Terengganu, barely five months after the general election in which the BN recaptured the state from PAS, the BN retained the seat by an increased majority. In the following September, the BN also won the first contested election for Ba'kelalan state seat in the interior of Sarawak. Most recently, it captured Pengkalan Pasir state seat from the opposition PAS in the 6 December 2005 by-election.
The Pengkalan Pasir by-election, which was held following the death of its PAS assemblyman, was perhaps the most significant of all. The rural constituency in the Malay heartland state of Kelantan had been a PAS stronghold since 1990, the year in which the opposition Islamic party ousted the ruling BN from the state. With approximately 18,000 voters, of which 95 per cent are Malays, this constituency reflects the overall ethnic composition for the state of Kelantan. The slim 55-vote majority gained by the PAS candidate in the March 2004 general election, a deep plunge from the 2,862-vote majority it had in the 1999 general election, also parallels the dwindling influence of the Islamic party in Kelantan itself. Since the 2004 general election, PAS has ruled Kelantan by a razor-thin two-seat majority in the state legislature. By contrast, in the 1999 general election, PAS won 41 seats against BN's two. Put simply, the Pengkalan Pasir state seat mirrored the general situation in Kelantan, where PAS' slim majority has been so crucial to the maintenance of the party's national clout. On the BN's part, the by-election brought it an inch closer to ending PAS's 15-year rule in the state. For these reasons, the by-election was intensely contested.
The first salvo came from Kelantan United Malays National Organization (UMNO) Liaison Chief cum State BN Chairman, Annuar Musa, who challenged PAS to dissolve the state assembly and call a snap election. He also proposed an en masse resignation of BN state assemblymen to pave way for fresh elections should their PAS counterparts be willing to do the same. There were also offers and counter-offers for those who would cross over to the other party. Annuar offered a string of high positions in the State Government to the first PAS assemblymen who crossed over to the BN. In response, State PAS Secretary and Executive Councillor, Takiyuddin Hassan, offered his Exco position to BN assemblyman who crossed over to PAS.
None of these offers were taken up though. PAS remained adamant that it would cling on the state even if by a 'half-seat' majority. The en masse resignation proposal was also shot down by the Election Commission Chief who reminded assemblymen of the law, which barred them from contesting in elections for five years if they resigned. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi also issued a call to stop the talk about resigning and to desist in attempts to push for a fresh election.
There were more substantial issues, which seemed to dominate the Pengkalan Pasir by-election. They were the bread and butter issues of economic development in one of the poorest states in Malaysia where religion had hitherto been a key factor in politics. UMNO's by-line in the election was 'change for Kelantan'. Scores of economic development projects were promised, including the setting up of a public university in the state. Federal projects like stabilization of river banks in flood prone areas and aid to repair mosques were immediately launched. PAS too promised to improve public amenities in the constituency, promising an elevated road across railway track in Pasir Mas town, a new wet market and a better drainage system. While the banner at PAS's election operation headquarters read 'Mempertahankan Kepimpinan Ulama' (Defending Leadership by the Ulama), the Islamic party's manifesto promised a 'Pasir Mas Baru' (New Pasir Mas). It is also worth noting that PAS preferred to field a reputable businessman rather than a traditional ulama as its candidate in this crucial election. PAS candidate, Hanifa Ahmad, had been the Chief Executive Officer of Kelantan's State Economic Development Corporation prior to his resignation to contest in the poll. PAS's campaign focus and its choice of candidate seemed to confirm the party's penchant for a pro-development image after it was nearly defeated by the better oiled BN in the 2004 general election.
Laying emphasis on economic development seemed to be a must rather than an option for PAS, which has been ruling the poorest state for 15 years. This new emphasis, however, has its own drawbacks. First, with limited state revenues and federal assistance, it is a daunting task for the PAS government to deliver on its promises to bring about economic development in the state. This will, in turn, erode voters' confidence in the party. Secondly, such an emphasis in its aspirations moves the party closer toward its UMNO/BN archrival, making the Islamic party less distinguishable from its nemesis. Thirdly, shifting the discourse from religion to economic development will, to a large extent, advantage the better resourced BN.
Has the discourse shifted from religion to economic development? To be sure, there seems to be an ongoing tussle between the two ideological platforms. Though economic development is no doubt increasingly becoming a key issue in Kelantan politics, both parties were loath to abandon the primacy of religion in the Kelantanese psyche. BN and PAS campaigners alike roamed the constituency dressed in sarong and white skull cap, the latter being a symbol of religious piety, during the various meet-the-people sessions. PAS supporters held sembahyang hajat (special prayers) in mosques, some until the wee hours in the morning on the night before the polling day. These religious symbolisms continue to exist side-by-side yearnings for economic development, suggesting that any political party, which can offer both, will have the electoral advantage in this Malay-heartland state. Thus far, there has been intense contest between UMNO and PAS in seeking to live up to such expectation.
The intensity of such contest was reflected in the result of Pengkalan Pasir by-election. The BN candidate won the election by a slim majority of 134 votes defeating the PAS candidate and an independent. It seemed that both parties had an equally strong following among electors, though this time round the BN had an edge over PAS. PAS blamed BN money politics as well as the presence of phantom voters for its defeat. But as economic development assumes an increased priority in the minds of voters, there is tremendous challenge ahead for the economically underprivileged PAS government. It now rules in Kelantan with a single seat majority in the state legislature. Based on the results of by-election just concluded, the BN looks set to challenge the PAS stronghold in Kelantan.
WATCHPOINT: The next by-election to be held in Kelantan will be crucial.
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