Friday, July 17, 2009

BN's Inspiration In Manik Urai

IN my most recent post, I gave Najib two thumbs up for his first 100 days in office. I was convinced (and am even more so after recent events in Manik Urai) that he was the right person to take country forward after Mahathir.

However, despite my confidence in Najib, I have to say I was a little surprised at some of the more daring announcements he made recently. After all, there was yet another by election coming up, this one in an area that is very Malay and traditionally pro the opposition. But Najib is made of sterner stuff than I! Not for him the easy way out! He wasn’t about to shirk his responsibilities and do the popular thing. It would have made sense, and made life a lot easier for him and his team if he had delayed some of the more contentious announcements till after the by election.

But Najib understands the bigger picture. Of course he wanted to win Manik Urai. He’s a politician and politicians don’t fight by elections to lose them. They fight to win. But although he will have dearly wanted to win the by election, the bigger picture is the country, its competitiveness and its position in the world order. Najib understands that no more time can be lost addressing national issues. These issues must be addressed and addressed fast, even if it means losing by elections. This shows an unexpected but welcome political maturity.

But what came next was certainly a shock to many political observers. In the midst of an economic slowdown, with job losses across the board and in all industries, it took a lot of guts and self belief to tell the Malays, especially on the eve of a by election in a constituency with 12,293 predominantly Malay voters that he was scrapping the 30% Bumiputera requirement for companies seeking public listing.

Though he cushioned this politically daring statement by announcing a U turn in the governments approach to teaching Science and Maths in English but the bigger issue is that Najib is acutely aware of the need to make Malaysia a more competitive country.

But what would be the response of the voters? Would they see what was going on as beneficial to the country or would they be more focused on the local issues that affect them? Well, I believe that although BN didn’t win Manik Urai, the fact that they reduced the majority from 1,352 votes to a mere 65 votes, a turnaround of roughly 95% qualifies as a moral victory, especially in a seat that PAS has only ever lost twice and has ruled since 1990. I believe therefore that this was a healthy endorsement of Najib, his style of leadership and approach.

The pessimists thought that BN might be in for a shock in Manik Urai at the end of June when Najib stated that many people were disappointed that the unity talks had not happened. PR reacted by announcing a huge rally for 100,000 people but only 5,000 turned up. This was a clear signal that lines of communication within PR were failing and that the rift in the top leadership at PAS between one faction that wants closer ties with UMNO and the other faction that prefers to go it alone is approaching boiling point. As campaigning continued, the absence of Nasharudin Mat Isa was a clear sign that all was not well. The question would be, can UMNO capitalize on this?

Certainly UMNO seized on the crisis in PAS during the campaign period. UMNO was quick to communicate to voters that they were disappointed that PAS would not sit at the same table as UMNO and that this was blocking the attempts by UMNO to unify the Malays.

And the voters bought it. On polling day, as the results came in, there were times when UMNO was leading the unofficial count. At the end of the day, UMNO actually won 5 out 9 of the polling districts. Interestingly, the four districts won by PAS were in the more remote areas. Furthermore, and this is a crucial sign for the General Election, UMNO youth came out on top in securing the youth vote.

As the results came in there were whispers of an upset. The whispers prompted PAS to announce that it won by an increased majority (2,000) an hour before polling had even ended. Another poorly thought out tactic by the increasingly agitated opposition that is fast earning a reputation for poor decision making.

So as the dust settles, what should we make of the Manik Urai by election result?

Undoubtedly the fractions within PAS are a concern for the PR and more importantly, the voters. The way the party dealt with the Nasharudin Mat Isa issues showed a lack of maturity that was not missed by those voters. UMNO managed the campaign well, beginning with the appointment of Dato Mustapha Mohamed as UMNO chief liason officer for Kelantan. But UMNO also put a great deal of effort and resources into this by Election, made promises that would have significantly improved the lives of many in Kelantan and yet still lost the by Election.

Overall, I see the result as more positive for UMNO than PAS. PAS has got some real internal problems, and is over promising and under performing. Moreover Nik Aziz is losing support.

Meanwhile, Najib’s increased popularity, as reported by the Merdeka Centre was comprehensively endorsed by the voters of Manik Urai. Najib is seen as the future of UMNO and voters have bought into him and his policies.

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