The campaign for the Malay vote will be most intense and fervent in the northern Malay heartland but the PAS dream of controlling aperfect crescent of Malay states will remain unfulfilled, writes JOCELINE TAN.
DATUK Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi called out “Assalam-ualaikum!” several times in a husky voice as he walked briskly through the crowd gathered at the stadium in the heart of Kangar, Perlis.
The Prime Minister waved left and right, wearing what some now call his “senyuman madu” – a charming smile that lit up his face – although he had had one of the most rushed days of his life.
Close behind him, Perlis Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim was grinning from ear to ear.
There was no time to stop and shake hands because Abdullah was running extremely late. He had been due in Alor Star at 8pm and the clock was now ticking past 10pm. It was two days before nomination and he had spent a hectic morning and afternoon scouring through names and credentials and strategising on how best to place them for contest.
The Perlis visit had been planned weeks before Abdullah decided to call for the 11th general election and the event that evening was to oversee a pet project of his – Islam Hadhari.
Abdullah wore a dark, formal suit because he was headed for an audience with the Sultan of Perlis.
Still, he did not dash through his speech. He patiently explained why he had been delayed and then spoke about Islam and its place in a multi-ethnic society. He won over the crowd, speaking in the northern accent, referring to Perlis as “Perlei” as the local folk do.
Shahidan, who had been among the coterie of state and party leaders gathered at Putrajaya, had flown in together with Abdullah on Perdana One and it was obvious that something had transpired between them in Putrajaya, or perhaps when they were up in the air.
The Perlis leader had a spring in his step and his despondency following intense speculation over his mentri besar status had been replaced by a jaunty mood. He referred to Abdullah as “Pak Lah yang kita kasihi dan sayangi” (Pak Lah whom we love and cherish) throughout the evening.
Late that night, after jetting back to Kuala Lumpur with Abdullah, he hinted over a telephone conversation with The Star: “You are going to be surprised.”
The rest is by now history.
Shahidan sprang the “wow factor” of the election. Barisan Nasional in Perlis had somehow persuaded the youngest brother of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to contest the Arau parliamentary seat and against none other than PAS information head and Islamic healer Datuk Dr Haron Din.
It meant that Dr Haron, who is spearheading the PAS campaign in Perlis, will have to fight a dual war against two prominent names – Datuk Seri di-Raja Syed Razlan Syed Putra Jamalullai in Arau and Shahidan in Tambun Tulang.
Perlis is part of the northern Malay heartland that PAS is seriously eyeing this general election.
It hopes to control what some have referred to as “a perfect crescent moon of Malay states”, namely Terengganu, Kelantan, Perlis and Kedah. But given the way events have unfolded even at this early stage, it is clear that PAS' crescent will be an imperfect one at best.
The Islamist party's confidence remains undiminished in Kelantan, and to a lesser extent in Terengganu.
In their frontline states of Kedah and Perlis, party leaders have steadfastly refused to speak of their chances – which seems rather odd given their expressed desire to control the two states.
In Kedah, party leaders talk vaguely of winning a simple majority (when on the record) or just denying Barisan a two-thirds majority win (when off the record).
Its dilemma in Kedah has to do with having a few well-known lieutenants such as Mohd Sabu, Mahfuz Omar and Azamudden Mohd Taib, but no strong and charismatic general. The death of Datuk Fadzil Mohd Noor has left a lacuna in Kedah which its current state commissioner Azizan Abdul Razak has been unable to fill.
In Perlis, Dr Haron, despite his reputation, is still rather green around the gills when it comes to politics. But PAS hopes he will provide the charisma while Perlis commissioner Hashim Yassin will take care of the political machinery and campaign.
The PAS line-up in Perlis is impressive, but so is that of Umno.
Both sides are fielding a large number of new faces with a mix of professionals, grassroots leaders and ulama.
However, Shahidan's political savvy cannot be underestimated. He has micro-managed the state with an odd mix of populism and strongman tactics. For instance, he is known for his barrage of welfare-oriented programmes, which PAS has admitted it has no hope of matching.
Barisan also has the advantage of the non-Malay factor in Kedah and Perlis. Non-Malays have made up their minds about the Islamic state and, in that connection, how they feel about PAS.
“I will vote for the party I am comfortable with,” said Loh Yi Yen, an office clerk in Kangar.
The PAS machinery in Kelantan is moving into full swing as expected of a party in power. By mid-week, supporters had staked their claim to key spots in the capital with buntings and flags bearing the green and white logo.
Mentri Besar Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat is as omnipresent in Kelantan as Shahidan is in Perlis. His image is seen on banners and posters, and even on T-shirts.
It is said the elderly leader will step aside not long after the elections although he was decidedly coy when asked about his future.
Late Thursday night, party supporters hoisted a giant wau bulan (the local kite) ringed with coloured lights and bearing the images of Nik Aziz and Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang near a traffic intersection in Kampung Cerang.
It was as tall as a double-storey building and was built from donations by supporters.
At a coffeeshop nearby, a VCD of PAS news and events was being shown on a big-screen TV.
This is the stronghold of one of PAS' most savvy politicians, Wan Rahim Wan Abdullah, who is moving to a parliamentary seat this election. His Tanjong Mas state seat will be contested by one of the two women candidates the party is fielding here.
The change has not been well accepted because the locals know that as a muslimat, she cannot move around as freely as Wan Rahim and will be expected to keep to the strict norms of women in PAS.
But she is expected to win anyway because, as wealthy factory owner Wan Muhammad Wan Ali said: “We vote for the party, not the person.”
The PAS ideology and propaganda has really sunk in after 14 years of power. It is hard to have a conversation with any PAS member without them detouring into the PAS version of right and wrong, of why PAS is more Islamic than Umno, why the West is wicked and why the Jews are even more wicked.
Everyone is entitled to his or her own views but the scary thing is they all seem to have only one view, voiced with uncanny uniformity. In that sense, Umno is not only fighting for votes but against a wall of entrenched propaganda.
But a breakthrough may be in sight for Barisan in Kelantan. It is likely to expand its current standing of one parliamentary and two state seats to 11 state and two parliamentary seats.
The situation in Terengganu, which has eight parliamentary and 32 state seats, is even more interesting.
A total of 15 state seats – which PAS won by a margin of less than 1,500 votes – will be keenly contested. Of these, six were with margins of less than 600 votes.
Umno has four seats and needs only 13 more to get a simple majority.
“It's touch-and-go for both sides,” said an Umno division leader.
Morale on the Barisan side has been boosted by the list of candidates, 60% of whom are new faces, comprising professionals, religious figures, former civil servants and grassroots leaders.
For instance, PAS secretary-general Nasharudin Mat Isa who has hopped over from Kedah will face Umno's Datuk Dr Abdullah Muhammad Zin, a highly qualified ulama figure in Besut.
The PAS team, on the other hand, is fielding mostly incumbents.
As the incumbent party in power, PAS still enjoys the upper hand but it will not have an easy time. It will have to work very hard to hold on to Terengganu because Umno is going all out in the state.
PAS is not the electrifying force it was during the 1999 elections, nor Umno the beleaguered party that it was.
Besides, Keadilan is now at best a marginal force in the two east coast states.
PAS' treatment of Keadilan partner Dr Syed Husin Ali was the subject of much discussion in Kota Baru earlier this week.
Syed Husin may be a devout Muslim but it is clear that PAS still sees him as a socialist.
His bid to contest the Kota Baru seat, which PAS had allocated to Keadilan, was opposed by no less than Nik Aziz who retorted that “sosialist ini adik sikit dari communist”.
In his mind, he saw socialism as a mere step away from communism.
The best of contests are always the earnestly fought ones, hence the interest in the northern Malay heartland. But PAS will have to dream on about controlling a perfect crescent of Malay states.