SLIM RIVER, PERAK – Malaysia’s newest political party led by statesman Mahathir Mohamad is facing an uphill battle in a by-election in a rural district in Perak state.
The Slim state constituency, about an hour’s drive north of Kuala Lumpur, is an Umno stronghold seat, with the party working well with its political partner, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), to work the ground.
Tun Dr Mahathir formed Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Fighters of the Nation) earlier this month after a bitter split from a party he had co-founded with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. But with Pejuang’s registration not officially approved yet, its candidate in Slim is standing in the state polls as an independent.
With just one day left before polling on Saturday (Aug 29), Dr Mahathir hit the sleepy town of Slim River on Thursday to speak at two political rallies.
“The party which I set up with Muhyiddin was to topple (ex-premier) Najib Razak. We succeeded because the people supported us when we said we will oust the unjust Najib administration,” Dr Mahathir told some 300 people at a rally in the heart of a Felda land settlement.
“But when we won, we turned around and said we would support Najib and he came back. This is a betrayal,” he added.
Dr Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan government lost power after just 22 months in office as Tan Sri Muhyiddin and most MPs from his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia defected to form an alliance with Najib’s Umno party and 10 other parties.
Bersatu was co-founded by Mr Muhyiddin and Dr Mahathir, who has since left the party.
At the rally, Dr Mahathir warned his party’s candidate in Slim not to defect.
“I trust you won’t sell yourself. What is your price?” he asked jokingly. “If BN offers you RM5 million to jump, say no,” he said to loud cheers from the audience.
A 72-year old Felda settler who declined to be named said he will vote for Pejuang. “I used to vote for Umno, but the leaders are corrupt. They don’t care about the people, they only think about themselves,” he claimed.
Said another Felda settler, Mr Abas Mohamad, 73: “Tun Dr Mahathir is my idol. Umno cannot be trusted.”
The Slim polls is the 12th by-election since the 2018 general elections.
The campaign has been hit by voter fatigue as politicians from both sides of the political divide are continuously bickering despite the coronavirus pandemic that has caused deep job losses.
Pejuang is fielding Islamic lawyer Amir Kusyairi Mohd Tanusi, 38, in the three-way contest.
He is facing off against a candidate from Umno, Mr Mohd Zaidi Aziz, 43, and an independent candidate, Mr S. Santharasekaran, a teacher, 44.
Mr Mohd Zaidi is running under the blue flag of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
In the 2018, BN retained the seat despite a three-corner fight with its then enemies PAS and Bersatu.
BN then netted 8,327 votes, against 4,103 garnered by PAS and 6,144 won by Bersatu.
With Umno and PAS now closely allied, observers expect most of the PAS votes to migrate to BN.
And Bersatu too is now part of the ruling Perikatan Nasional parties arrayed against Pejuang.
“Pejuang is up against Umno, PAS and Bersatu, in an Umno stronghold,” political analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi told The Straits Times. “If Pejuang can get 3,000 or more votes, that would be good enough. But if it gets less than that, then Pejuang will not go far.”
Associate Professor Azman said: “What is important is whether Perikatan Nasional (PN) can increase its majority in this contest. If it does not increase its majority then this means they can’t even gain support from their own stronghold.”
Pejuang when it is registered, is expected to have a starting slate of at least five MPs, including Dr Mahathir, who had left Bersatu.
Apart from the keen interest on Pejuang in the Slim election fight, observers also want to dissect how well Umno and PAS would accept Bersatu into its fold on the ground.
Though PM Muhyiddin’s Bersatu has led the PN government in the last five months, Slim is only the second by-election that the party has had the chance to campaign together with Umno and PAS. The first was the July 4 contest in Chini state constituency in Pahang.
In comparison, Umno and PAS have worked together in most of the 12 by-elections since 2018 when they were both in the opposition.
In Slim, campaign leaders of Umno, PAS and Bersatu say they have been working together and denied claims of any simmering tensions.
This was in contrast to Bersatu youth members being repeatedly booed at by Umno members at a joint function in the constituency.
“Compatibility will take time. We used to be enemies and today we are working with each other. It will take time but things are moving quickly and positively,” Bersatu vice-president Mohd Rafiq Naizamohideen said.
An Umno Perak division chief, Mr Ahmad Rafix Abdul Jamal, said the Umno members who had booed Bersatu youth members then were not from the area, but were from Ipoh.
“We are expecting votes from these two parties (PAS and Bersatu); they were our opponents but now they are with us, and cooperating with us,” Mr Ahmad Rafix told The Straits Times.
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