It has been over one week of campaigning since the nomination day for the Rantau by-election on April 13, and there are signs of Pakatan Harapan gaining momentum with just days left to polling.
Nevertheless, if the current sentiments and momentum continues, Barisan Nasional candidate Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan (pic), the 3-term former Menteri Besar of Negeri Sembilan, is expected to prevail over Pakatan's Dr Streram Sinnansamy with quite a comfortable margin.
Incumbency has given local-boy Mohamad Hasan or "Tok Mat" a huge advantage. He is well known in Rantau and his deeds as assemblyman and former Menteri Besar are key to the Tok Mat brand of openness and caring he carries into the contest.
In these last days of campaigning, Pakatan’s focused barrage on the alleged financial mismanagement of Felda and Tabung Haji (TH) that it blamed on Umno, which is now under Tok Mat’s watch, is also not selling as it is an old narrative.
The woes of Felda that are touching Rantauans’ hearts and minds is not so much the mismanagement touted by Pakatan campaigners but the hardship encountered by settlers related to low commodities prices that Umno campaigners and its strategic partner PAS had blamed on the new government.
Felda settlers are distraught that they cannot make ends meet given current commodities prices, and cutback in subsidies they used to enjoy under the Barisan administration.
Additionally, when the Pakatan government declared a 1.25% hibah (dividend) for 2018 to TH contributors last Friday, Barisan immediately jumped on the opportunity to call on Rantauans to make their vote a referendum on the capability of Pakatan to govern the country. The Malay ground has stirred over the hibah announcement as the dividend was a far cry from the 6.25 % declared for 2017 and as Umno/PAS campaigners pointed out, lower than the bank’s median savings rate of 2%.
Qualitatively speaking, the hibah announcement is the death knell for Pakatan in Rantau. And as a hot button issue in this 55% Malay-majority seat, it is explosive - so much so that everything else raised is now secondary.
To manage the fallout, Pakatan is accusing Umno/PAS of playing the racial card, but the Malay ground is not buying this old narrative.
Umno now senses that victory in Rantau is at hand especially with its former political rival PAS now becoming its bedfellow. In the 13th General Elections (GE13), where Barisan was involved in a straight fight with PKR for Rantau, BN won with a 4,613-vote majority, taking 10,126 votes which is 64.75% of the 15,639 total valid votes.
Extrapolating the fact that BN votes fell by 14.37% in the Rembau parliamentary constituency during GE14 from GE13, as the swing vote factor in Rantau was not available due to Tok Mat winning the seat uncontested after PKR’s Dr Streram Sinnasamy was unable to file his nomination due to technicality, with all other things being equal, PKR would only have gained 663 votes from GE13, which means Tok Mat would still have won by about 3,287 votes majority, qualitatively speaking.
In today’s context, and taking into account that the Umno/PAS pact has had a premium effect on Malay votes seen from the 23.6% vote swing to BN in the recent Semenyih by election, which saw a similar 4-cornered fight like Rantau, Tok Mat is therefore projected to win Rantau by more than 3,200 votes. The difference between Semenyih and Rantau is that Semenyih is 67% Malay, 16.7%Chinese, 13.3% Indian and 3% others while Rantau is 55.11% Malay, 18.8% Chinese, 26.06% Indian, and 0.02% others. But unlike Semenyih where the BN candidate Zakaria Hanafi is a new face, Tok Mat is renowned and well liked by all ethnic groups.
Although Dr Streram Sinnansamy is the Rembau PKR deputy chairman, he is not well known despite his claim of 13 years residency in Seremban. When a medical professional of his age needs to sell the fact that he had served in Afghanistan as proof of his openness in helping Muslims, it literally exposes how little local credibility he has in Rantau.
Additionally, Streram’s candidacy had been openly challenged within his party by 396 grassroots members representing 11 PKR branches who wanted a Malay candidate on the basis that Rantau is a Malay-majority seat.
For the better part of the PKR campaign now, its president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has had to continuously defend and explain his decision to field an Indian, instead of a Malay candidate and with the low turnouts at PKR campaign events of mere dozens, compared with tens of hundreds in GE14, it prompted a hurried change in campaign strategy to build momentum.
On April 4, PKR launched the 20th anniversary of Reformasi celebrations at Rantau, gathering all of Pakatan’s heavyweights and for the first time, about 1,000 showed up.
It remained to be seen whether this programme was able to move the Malay ground.
Interestingly, DAP only started campaigning for Streram on April 4, perhaps in great confidence that the majority of the 18.8% Chinese voters would nearly automatically pick Pakatan. This is despite DAP labelling Rantau “the mother of all by-elections” because of Tok Mat’s stature as Barisan's acting chairman.
Last Friday, DAP national organising secretary Anthony Loke put the proposition to the Chinese that they have the capacity to pull off another significant giant killing feat in Rantau, by electing an underdog in Streram to “guard against a comeback of Umno tyranny”. This shows that DAP is appealing on Chinese abhorrence for tyranny and psychology of aiding underdogs.
Interestingly, one of the key campaign strategies from both sides involved making personal appeals to voters. At every ceramah, Tok Mat had stressed that his parents had raised him to never ask for favours from anyone, even if he had not a grain of rice to eat. But he is now humbly begging his constituents for a huge favour to elect him for another round as their assemblyman. At the Pakatan camp, Anwar pleaded for parents to call their children back to vote to ensure Streram’s election, stressing his “reformasi” agenda requires their vote.
Thus far, Tok Mat’s impassioned plea has had a huge ping on the Malay ground because in Negri Sembilan’s Minangkabau culture and society, its sacred principles requires action to support one another in times of need.
Will there be a vote swing and for whom? The critical segment of Rantau voters is those aged 21 to 40, which comprise 4,106 voters or about 40% of total voters. Here, national issues highlighted by BN is touching their hearts and minds. Highlighting Pakatan’s U-Turns on many manifesto pledges, these voters are angry over mandatory PTPTN repayment instead of a promised moratorium till salary hits RM4,000; abolishing of BR1M which pays RM450 to single adults; new toll as congestion charge; rising unemployment among graduates, as well as rising cost of living after implementation of SST to replace GST, among others.
In contrast, Pakatan offers excuses that the government is only a year old and needs more time to fulfil its manifesto, and blames the previous BN government of incurring RM1 trillion debt which inhibits the new government from social-affirmative action, and when this tired narrative failed to bite, especially among the Malays, Pakatan initiated personal attack against Tok Mat.
In Rantau, Tok Mat’s three-term achievements are for all to see: the 5,000-acre world class township of Bandar Sri Sendayan located just 7km outside Seremban, the RM808 million Royal Malaysian Air Force training base in Sendayan, land given for National, Chinese and Indian schools to put up new buildings, land for temples and shrines, street-light from Rantau to Seremban and aid for those in need, and Felda settlers are well cared for. Literally, there are no local issues to pick on. His easy going personality makes him approachable to the common folk who remembers his deeds such as paying their electricity bills, giving educational aid to deserving students, and even aiding in getting jobs for graduates and school leavers.
In GE14, Barisan managed to retain the Rembau parliament seat and two of the other three contested State seats – N26 Chembong and N28 Kota – while PKR won N25 Paroi, besides N27 Rantau which Tok Mat won uncontested. It is our qualitative evaluation that Tok Mat would win the N27 Rantau seat based on the strength of the Umno-PAS political pact and anger against a Pakatan government for not fulfilling its election manifesto and incompetency in dealing with the economic downturn which had raised the cost of living significantly.
Asking Rantauans to use their vote as a referendum on the Pakatan government’s performance has a huge ping on the ground.
The danger for Barisan, however, is complacency but if they maintain their ceramah momentum and door-to-door engagements now, where everyone is coming out with all hands on deck – even the candidate’s wife, Raja Datin Seri Salbiah Tengku Nujumuddin as well as the wife of MCA President Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong, Datin Seri Jessica Lim Hai Ean are going all out to give the BN campaign the feminine touch, Tok Mat will in our qualitative estimates, prevail.
Pakatan’s engagement is seen as a ‘commercial’ conveyor belt lacking in sincerity, but we will only know on April 13 whether Rantau being a small town, will be receptive to gestures of camaraderie.
Dr Pamela Yong is the Deputy Chairman of Institute for Strategic Analysis and Policy Research (INSAP)