2018/22, 9 March 2018
Malaysia’s general elections should happen weeks from now. The ruling BN and PH are already busy with their walkabouts and roadshows even before official campaigning begins. In the rural state of Kelantan, small scale campaigning has already begun: political parties have started the traditional “flag warfare” (perang bendera) by hanging party symbols along the main roads to increase visibility. This escalated before the Chinese New Year celebrations last month, with parties targeting those returning to the villages during the holidays.
While most parties are already geared for the elections, BN and PH have remained tight-lipped on who will contest in which constituencies. They also have not officially announced their candidates for Chief Minister. Incumbent Chief Minister Ahmad Yakob will for now remain the PAS candidate.
Political developments have altered the dynamics in the state. This will affect how the opposition approaches Kelantan. It will no longer be direct contest between BN (via UMNO) and PAS. In 2015, PAS lost its spiritual leader, Nik Aziz Nik Mat. Internal fragmentation within the party has resulted in the formation of the splinter party Amanah, which is led by former PAS leaders. Predictions are that Kelantan will see three-cornered fights between BN, PAS, and PH. BN will be at an advantage. Three-cornered fights could potentially allow BN to retake Kelantan from PAS, which it had governed since 1990, because opposition votes will be split. PAS has declared that it intends to contest the elections independently.
Yet, PH wants to squash the idea that PAS is going alone. It has told the electorate that there is a de facto PAS-UMNO alliance. Already, PH’s prime minister candidate, Mahathir Mohamad, has gone around the country warning those who attended his rallies not to vote PAS because it is supporting Najib. This image of PAS-UMNO reconciliation is at the heart of PH’s campaign strategy. Recently, Husam Musa, the assemblyman for Salor, has challenged PAS’ Nik Mohamed Abduh Nik Abdul Aziz, to deny a secret recording which he argues, sounds like Nik Mohamed Abduh’s voice. The recording contains a discussion of two individuals about receiving payments from UMNO and co-operation during the last Sarawak elections. The recordings have gone viral online. Nik Mohamed Abduh, who is the son of Nik Aziz, has denied the allegations.
PH is banking on widespread Kelantanese disapproval of PAS working with UMNO. Under Nik Aziz’s rule (between 1990 and 2013), the PAS government was critical of BN and UMNO, particularly the federal government’s refusal to allow PAS to implement hudud laws (punitive Islamic laws which include stoning, amputation, and whipping). Older voters will recall the bitter experience of seeing PAS losing Kelantan in the 1978 elections to BN after its brief membership in the ruling coalition. PH leaders are already playing up the failed ACT 355 debates to increase the maximum punishments for shariah courts. While PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang tabled a private member’s bill in federal parliament, the issue has fizzled out. The failure of the shariah bill to take place could be another campaign issue PH leaders will leverage on to weaken PAS’ campaign.
It remains to be seen whether the strategy of painting PAS as UMNO’s ally will work in PH’s favour. For many Kelantanese, their concern remains the rising cost of living. On the ground, UMNO has been organising wholesale markets in villages, selling basic goods such as sugar, cooking oil, rice, and meat at cheap prices, and these have been popular. PAS, too, has been organising similar markets though at smaller scales. Even in the state of Kelantan, it is bread and butter issues that will likely shape voting patterns, rather than religion or identity.
Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and Co-coordinator of the Indonesian Studies Program.
The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.