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Monday March 10, 2008

The swing that caught everyone by surprise


TAN Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon looked like the world had collapsed around him on Saturday night. In a way, it had. 

The state government he had led for 18 years had been defeated by the combined might of the DAP, PKR and PAS. His own Gerakan party candidates had been wiped out in Penang and the party was quite out in the cold nationally. 

This was probably the worst moment in his political life.  

His hair needed a comb, his face was pasty and each time he smiled, it looked more like a grimace. Most of all, he looked defeated. 

But the ex-Chief Minister has emerged as the perfect gentleman politician even as the winds of change swept most of his Barisan Nasional colleagues off the political stage. 

At 11.45pm he went on national TV to concede defeat to his opponents, as was the constitutional thing to do. He was composed, in control of his emotions and, above all, professional.  

He has not had an easy relationship with the media but he won their respect that evening. 

Earlier, at 9pm, he had telephoned state DAP chairman Chow Kon Yeow to do the same. He also told Chow that he had informed the Yang di-Pertua Negri of the election outcome. 

He also appealed for the people to stay calm because he knew that change of this nature was bound to cause anxiety on the ground.  

It was a sudden and stunning end to almost 40 years of Barisan rule in this state. 

“They had one bird in hand but they wanted the two in the bush,” said Dr Koh’s operations director O.K. Hun. 

The question on many people’s lips now is: How did Dr Koh not see it coming? 

The Barisan loss in Penang was devastating. The once invincible coalition had lost 11 of the 13 parliamentary seats it contested. At the state level, it lost 29 out of a total of 40 seats. 

It was a night when predictions, assumptions and stereotypes went flying out of the window. 

“It looks like our own intelligence sources have gone haywire,” said Hun. 

The Chinese vote swing was expected but the degree of swing stunned everyone.  

Even before the polls, people had been talking about the “compensation swing” which had been twice postponed – in 1999 when the Chinese backed the ruling party and in 2004 when everyone was swept along by goodwill for the new Prime Minister. 

This time, the Chinese swing was not about punishing MCA, which had done a credible job on many Chinese issues, but it was to punish Umno over issues ranging from the revival of the NEP to incidents of “body snatching”. 

Issues like Dr Koh’s less than sterling track record, the indecisiveness over the Chief Minister’s post and the fiasco over the indelible ink added to the overall mood.  

The Indian vote, a loyal bloc of Barisan votes, also abandoned the coalition. 

But the most startling was the Malay swing. West coast Malays are seen as conservative and moderate, yet they snubbed Umno at the ballot box in traditional strongholds like Balik Pulau and turned against a former Umno deputy minister in Nibong Tebal. 

There were push and pull factors where the Malay vote was concerned. 

It is possible that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad provided the push – that much of what he had said about government leaders had resonated among urban Malays who then took it to the ballot box. 

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was without a doubt the pull factor. West coast Malays are not drawn to PAS the way their east counterparts are but Anwar and PKR are an acceptable alternative to them. 

People were curious about Anwar, not many had seen him in the flesh since his release and he spoke the populist language. 

In Permatang Pauh, older women would hold Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s hands, kiss her on both cheeks and say, “Sayang!” as though she were their younger daughter. 

Even social critic Dr Chandra Muzaffar’s vilification of Anwar was like water off a duck’s back.  

But the Opposition also had a credible line-up. The new DAP and PKR faces were all professionals, clean-cut and not lugged down by political baggage. 

For example, the new Bukit Bendera MP and political scientist Liew Chin Tong is a brilliant strategist who helped Lim Guan Eng plot their assault on Penang. 

On the campaign trail, IT consultant and blogger Jeff Ooi had the sharpest learning curve among the lot and he talked and sang his way into voters’ hearts. 

The Chinese have always been very tactical with their votes but some are asking whether they have gone overboard this time. 

The scenario of a largely Chinese government bench versus an all-Umno opposition bench in Penang is unlikely to add to ethnic relations in the state, something that the new government will have to be very sensitive to. 

And while the ground had seemed silent to the Barisan candidates, it was not to the other side. 

The DAP-PKR pact knew they would win after the first rally at the Han Chiang High School. After the second and bigger rally, they knew they would get more than one-third of the seats. 

“But we did not imagine the sweep would be so massive,” said Liew. Not even when the calls started coming while the votes were being counted.  

Seats were falling to them like dominoes and when Pulau Tikus, a state seat favouring Gerakan’s Datuk Seri Dr Teng Hock Nan fell by a 6,106-vote majority to them, they knew they were on the way to a landslide win. 

Their supporters were celebrating but the mood among the victors was quite sober because they know they will have to do better than the people they replaced if they do not want to be replaced in five years’ time. 

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