TUN Dr Mahathir Mohamad knew that public opinion would not be in favour of his party accepting ex-Umno leaders.
But the Prime Minister was neither apologetic nor embarrassed about welcoming what his own coalition partners had labelled sampah or garbage into Bersatu.
The move to take in seven former Umno MPs caught his Pakatan Harapan partners by surprise and it is only now that some of them have started voicing their concern.
Well, it is too late to object and besides, who among them would dare stand up to Dr Mahathir? He remains quite formidable at 93 and can still freeze you out with a glare.
Moreover, he had indicated that if his Pakatan partners did not like it, he would take his party elsewhere and that sounded like a veiled threat.
What happened is so old politics and a slap in the face of those Pakatan leaders whose careers revolved around running down Umno.
But Dr Mahathir’s priority is the survival of his party, which is struggling with Malay support.
Politics is a numbers game and Bersatu now has 22 MPs, making it the fourth biggest party in Parliament.
The new recruits will help offset the bad publicity over the fake degree scandal.
And even though the party has been mocked as a tong sampah or garbage bin, the crossovers are a coup of sorts for the elderly leader given that his party is preparing for its biggest battle since May 9.
“The Semenyih by-election will be the ultimate battleground for the Malay vote. It’ll be the litmus test of Malay support towards the government,” said KRA strategy director Amir Fareed Rahim.
Amir noted that incumbents rarely lose in by-elections and as such, expectations will be high for Bersatu to retain the seat.
“The stakes are definitely higher for Bersatu than for Umno or PAS. The outcome will be read as a reflection of the Prime Minister’s standing,” he added.
Bersatu, said Amir, needs to retain the seat to reassure its partners of its strength and also to halt the perceived decline in Malay support that the government has suffered in the past few months.
The polls will also test the dynamics of the ongoing political partnership of Umno and PAS and whether the two parties can build upon the momentum seen in the Cameron Highlands campaign.
“A win for Umno will strengthen the call for a more permanent cooperation between the two parties. It will also strengthen Mat Hasan’s (Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan) grip on the party leadership,” said Amir.
According to former Jelutong MP Jeff Ooi, Semenyih is a different kettle of fish from Cameron Highlands.
“Malays make up 68% of the electorate in Semenyih and it will be the first real test of the Malay ground,” said Ooi.
The Umno crossovers also give Dr Mahathir some bragging rights to claim that MPs are abandoning Umno for his party.
Umno, which had 54 MPs after the 14th General Election, is now left with only 37 MPs.
Moreover, one of the crossovers, Datuk Seri Ikmal Hisham Abdul Aziz, is known as a “taukeh AP” and has concessions to a string of public works projects in his Tanah Merah constituency.
The one-time Umno crony basically drives the local economy of Tanah Merah with all his big contracts
He is seen as some sort of “lord of Tanah Merah” and despite his “cash is king” reputation, he is the type of seasoned grassroots politician that Bersatu needs in order to expand its base.
Unfortunately, another of the crossovers, Datuk Shabudin Yahaya, is famous for advocating that rape victims can marry their rapist. But fortunately for Bersatu, all of that will not matter much in the battle for Semenyih.
Hulu Langat Umno division chief Datuk Johan Aziz said Semenyih folk are burdened by cost of living issues.
“That is the top issue. They feel that life is tougher than before,” said Johan, who lost the seat in GE14.
Johan also took a dig at Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik, who recently officiated a ground-breaking event for a school in Semenyih.
“I was the one who lobbied the Education Minister for the allocation last April, but he (Maszlee) is acting like he did all the work,” said Johan.
Well, that is what they call the spoils of war.
Maszlee had claimed that his Semenyih visit was planned way before the by-election was decided.
That prompted a tongue-in-cheek tweet from retired politician Datuk Lee Hwa Beng: “Must give him credit for knowing there will be a by-election in Semenyih.”
Pakatan politicians have only themselves to blame as they struggle to meet the high campaign standards they set for themselves.
They had better be prepared for brickbats if they break their own rules when the Semenyih campaign starts.
The Semenyih hinterland is still largely Malay villages but a big part of it has become quite urbanised over the years, crissed-crossed by tolled highways.
As such, the government’s failure to scrap highway tolls as promised has not gone down well with the local folk.
Pakatan’s U-turn decision to reinstate the automated enforcement system is also an issue in these parts.
Bersatu’s advantage is that Selangor has been a Pakatan state since 2008 and the locals have grown accustomed to the coalition.
However, the late assemblyman Bakhtiar Mohd Nor’s victory was widely considered a fluke win and the party apparently has no political machinery to speak of in Semenyih.
Bersatu leaders are also not taking the Umno-PAS cooperation lightly.
PAS, in making way for Umno to contest, had made it clear that they would not support Umno’s Johan as the candidate and that they wanted a fresh face with no baggage.
“Our candidate got 6,966 votes in the last round. We told Umno we can deliver those votes again because everywhere we go, people have lots of complaints,” said PAS deputy information chief Roslan Shahir.
A hint of the PAS presence in Semenyih lies in the mosques and suraus. PAS and Umno jointly control all of the 11 mosques in the area. The two parties also control 19 of the 20 suraus.
Bakhtiar had won by a majority of almost 9,000 votes in a multi-cornered fight that also involved Umno and PAS.
It has been pointed out that if the Umno and PAS votes were added up, Bakhtiar’s majority would only be about 1,900 votes.
In other words, Bersatu cannot take anything for granted in this Malay heartland seat, particularly given that surveys have shown that 62% of Malays are dissatisfied with the Pakatan regime.
Bersatu needs to turn the tide of Malay sentiment towards their party and regain control of the Malay narrative.
Otherwise, Semenyih could turn out to be the party’s Waterloo.
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