By SUHAINI AZNAM
KUALA Terengganu voters go to the polls today in a busy by-election that has woken them up from their long-accustomed slumber.
The traffic has trebled, roadside eateries are open until the wee hours and money in many guises has flowed in – almost as much as the political promises of both Barisan and PAS.
But for the politicians, it is still touch and go, as Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed quietly acknowledged.
Terengganu people do not wear their political hearts on their sleeve. Even seasoned politicians like PAS Bukit Tuku assemblyman Datuk Abdul Fatah Haron admitted that they were very hard to read.
He recalled that in previous state elections, people had said: “Outside we are Barisan, but our hearts are with PAS.”
“But when we opened the ballot boxes, we found they had voted Umno!”
The results tonight are expected to be so narrow that a recount is almost inevitable. Emotions are so heightened among political die-hards that as a precaution, some 6,000 police personnel have been brought in to keep the peace.
The guessing game is also part of both parties psy-war. Neither wants to let on their advantage, which might encourage party workers to relax and members to take things for granted.
A PKR assemblyman stopped at a restaurant in Kg Tiong for lunch, mumbling: “It’s tough, it’s tough. If we can get 50% of the Chinese to vote us again, we’ll be happy.”
In March 2008, the Opposition won 70% of the Chinese votes. And yet, Mustapa himself was making another round of Chinatown after Friday prayers.
A high turnout will probably work in Barisan’s favour. A low turnout usually indicates rumbling unhappiness that keeps protest voters at home.
Umno’s Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh, 46, gauged three categories of voter response.
“If they say undi itu sulit (my vote is secret), then it’s tough for us; if they say saya doakan Datuk (I will pray for you), then you have their vote; and if they ask you to show why you deserve their vote, you don’t have them yet but you still stand a good chance of winning them over.”
In the midst of the excitement, one quiet bomoh has almost been forgotten. He is Independent candidate Azharudin Mamat @ Adam who calmly put up his black and white banners on Thursday night just a little bit too late perhaps to make an impact.
He has been relying on the help of friends and family as he visited villagers at mosques and shops.
When asked which of the two giants would win, he said with bravado: “Bebas akan menang (The Independent will win).”
In the absence of national and even state-wide issues, the candidates became the issue, acknowledged Mustapa.
Realising this, Wan Farid has been working harder, going to the ground more often.
In the first week, Mustapa saw PAS clearly leading. But in the last few days, he thinks there has been a shift towards Umno.
He credits this to the help from other states, which had poured their manpower and resources to boost the efforts of the local machinery.
“Everyone is so committed. It’s so important for us to win,” said Mustapa.
The focus on the constituency’s 11% Chinese voters has also reverted to its 88% Malay voters including those in the PAS stronghold of Wakaf Mempelam.
Wanita Umno has gone house to house, braving the displeasure of some villagers because Umno has to begin somewhere.
Family is very important in conservative Terengganu.
On the Kuala Lumpur-Kuala Terengganu express bus, Norliah, a shy lass in her early 20s, was returning just for this by-election. She will be voting for “whoever my sister tells me to”.
To help such opinion leaders make up their minds, the state government has sponsored 400,000 copies each of the Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian.
The campaign rounds, however, have not always reached their mark.
In Cendering, two of the fishermen waiting for approval of their licences were from Paka, near Dungun, while another was from Batu Rakit – all outside the constituency.
The Kuala Terengganu voters themselves have enjoyed being wooed.
However, the laid-back Terengganu residents have become even more inward looking since the general election last March that threw up a deluge of political events.
From the dilemma over who was going to take over as their Mentri Besar, to non-stop party elections in 2008, to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s imminent retirement and now the uncertainty over Umno’s second echelon line-up, the quiet people are politically weary.
Perhaps all they want now is a quiet, time-out.