The Permatang Pauh by-election, a preemptive strike by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim before he is charged, will be used as a referendum of sorts with the sodomy charges the main campaign issue.
DATUK Seri Anwar Ibrahim in Permatang Pauh will contest as a favourite contender when the by-election is held following the decision of his wife, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, to step down as the Member of Parliament.
His admirers believe it will be a shoo-in for him, with little need for heavy campaigning.
It is a homecoming to his old parliamentary constituency, which he first won as a Barisan Nasional candidate in 1982 with a majority of over 14,352 votes. His opponents then were two featherweights from PAS and DAP. Anwar also subsequently won in 1986, 1990 and 1995.
In 1999, Anwar’s former ally, Datuk Seri Dr Ibrahim Saad, was given the job of challenging Wan Azizah. Despite the anger over Anwar’s jail sentence, the former put up a credible fight and managed to reduce the majority to 9,077.
By 2004, with Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s popularity at its height, particularly his call for reforms, Wan Azizah managed to pull through with only a 590-vote majority.
But the March 8 polls was a different story. Wan Azizah’s majority shot up to 13,398 votes while Barisan's candidate Datuk Dr Pirdaus Ismail managed to garner 16,950 votes.
Going by past results, the Barisan has a base of 14,000 to 17,000 voters while PKR has between 20,000 and 30,000.
In the 2008 elections, Barisan must have lost the Chinese and Indian voters, who could have been depended on previously to deliver their votes.
There were losses in votes from many pro-Barisan Malays voters who favoured the PKR this time as the political tsunami swept the country.
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who is expected to lead the by-election campaign, has set a realistic tone by declaring Barisan to be the underdog.
It cannot be business as usual. Any declaration of victory, as many Umno leaders often like to proclaim, would be a bad start.
By being the underdog, the Barisan campaigners would realise that the odds are against them and they would be entering a fight they have never fought before.
They would need to work hard and, certainly, keep their fancy cars at home when campaigning.
The opponent is, after all, Anwar Ibrahim and the Barisan candidate is likely to be a less formidable contender.
In any by-election, the opposition is the favoured choice as voters perceive that the political status quo would not be affected if an opposition member was voted in to help check the government better.
The resources of the opposition would also be channelled into one area and this time, the opposition is no longer the “poor party” as evident during the 2008 polls. With five states under its control now, financial contributions are no longer an issue.
The Barisan is still unpopular, as evident from the massive losses in the general election, and the recent fuel price hike has not reduced the resentment towards the leadership.
It’s a problem affecting heads of government all over the world and the Prime Minister is no exception. A survey by the independent Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research has showed that Pak Lah’s popularity has dipped to below 50% from an all-time high of 91% in 2004.
It has been reported that 59% of the respondents said economic problems were the most important issue today, with the majority expressing concern over the direction of the country.
Executive director Ibrahim Suffian said the unhappiness among respondents was not just on the fuel and food prices hike but also on the political uncertainties in the country.
The Pakatan seems to have fared better with 57% of respondents saying they were “somewhat satisfied” and “very satisfied” with the opposition, but the survey also showed that the respondents had more faith in the Barisan delivering their promises than Pakatan.
It is best that Barisan is not quick to dismiss the findings but to find ways to repair its image instead.
With the looming arrest of Anwar for sodomy, the by-election campaign and the trial could be held at the same time.
The decision for Wan Azizah to give up her seat is obviously a preemptive strike by Anwar before he is charged. He will surely treat the by-election as a referendum of sorts with the sodomy charges used as the main campaign issue.
The Barisan, if it plays by the rules, would have its hands tied as it would be sub-judice for the media and the leaders to talk about it. But it’s a free-for-all on the Internet and the ceramahs with little possibility of contempt of court.
Politics is all about perception and winning votes. With the prices of crude oil going down, it’s also time for Malaysians to pay less for their petrol.
This would be one of the many measures it can take to gain popularity ahead of Permatang Pauh.