Malaysia's Crucial By-Election

Two and a half months after arguably the most divisive election in Malaysian history, the ruling Barisan Nasional is going toe to toe with the opposition and spending a whopping RM19,000 per voter to ward off the Pakatan Rakyat coalition in a seemingly inconsequential state assembly by-election in the rural northeastern state of Terengganu.

The election, to be held tomorrow, may look meaningless, political observers say, but in addition to creating a hung assembly if the opposition Parti Islam seMalaysia candidate wins, it is crucial to Najib Tun Razak's ambitions to hold onto his position as prime minister following the Barisan's loss of the popular vote in the 13th general election held on May 5.

It is crucial for PAS to demonstrate it remains a viable political party after failing to hold up its leg of the three-member opposition coalition in that race, winning only 21 of the 73 parliamentary seats it contested, down from 23 in the 2008 national election.

It is crucial for Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, now the chief minister of the northern state of Kedah, who has assumed a major role in the by-election in an effort to demonstrate that he has more clout than just his father's name implies.

Mukhriz showed up in Terengganu during the campaign with nine Kedah state assemblymen in tow to attempt to supplement the already considerable election machinery the United Malays National Organization has deployed. Mukhriz is widely assumed to be attempting to follow his father onto the national stage and is expected to eventually make a run to become deputy prime minister.

The odds strongly favor UMNO, the country's biggest ethnic political party, which holds the seat now. The Barisan won 17 of the 32 Terengganu Assembly seats, with PAS winning 14 and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, headed by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, one. The seat came open on June 26 when A, Rahman Mokhtar, who had held it for two terms, died from complications from lung cancer. A month and a half earlier, he had won the Kuala Besut state seat by 2,434 votes against Napisah Ismail, the PAS candidate. Tengku Zaihan Che Ku Abdul Rahman has replaced the late lawmaker as the UMNO candidate.

Bersih, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, held a press conference Monday to condemn what it called "rampant vote-fishing with public funds by federal and state governments in the Kuala Besut by-election, which went up to more than RM19,000 per voter by the 10th day of the campaign period."

The election-reform NGO said financial promises and allocations by federal and state agencies for the Kuala Besut area have totaled at least RM337.5 million (US$106.3 million) via grants, new programs and other goodies from the Prime Minister's Department, the Education and Agriculture Ministries, the Terengganu State Government, and the Syarikat Perumahan Negara Bhd. the National Housing Company.

"Divided among the 17,679 registered voters, this means a vote in Kuala Besut is worth an unprecedented RM19,089.92 so far, provided that all the election promises are fulfilled. With three days of campaigning remaining, this figure will surely soar to new heights in Malaysia's election history," Bersih said in a prepared press release.

"The Assembly is split 16 for UMNO and 15 for PAS after Rahman's death," said a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. "So another win for PAS tips the balance for Pakatan Rakyat and could cause ripples elsewhere. If UMNO loses this one, it makes Najib unstable everywhere."

PAS, in its June 2011 annual general meeting, underwent a sudden transformation, abandoning its traditional call to convert the country into an Islamic state and electing as its leaders a secular state that replaced many of its religious leaders in an effort to widen its public appeal and mesh more effectively with the two other parties that make up the opposition, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Anwar's PKR.

Twelve of the 18 elected central committee members were individuals that seemed to reflect the majority Malay middle and working classes rather than conservative rural constituents. In particular Husam Musa, who had pushed to moderate the PAS stance on a theocratic state, won one of the three vice-president posts and vowed to reach out to non-Muslim minorities.

While the party remained headed by an Islamic religious leader, Abdul Hadi Awang, the deputy presidents and vice presidents below him were collection of parliamentarians, activists and think tank analysts dubbed "the Erdogans," a reference to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, elected as an Islamic leader in Turkey who against predictions continued the country's longstanding moderate policies.

Unfortunately the strategy to change PAS's direction didn't appeal to rural ethnic Malay voters. All of the so-called Erdogans lost their seats. Now PAS is attempting to regroup. The Kuala Besut seat is regarded as the first attempt to reconstruct the party.

Anwar Ibrahim has brought some of his heavy guns to the assembly district, asking voters to disregard the vast amounts of money that UMNO is pouring into the district and instead "take the opportunity to change the political landscape in the country by ensuring a PAS victory."

Projects announced by the Barisan since the 10-day campaign began July 12, include a RM250 million project to deepen the Kuala Besut estuary and build a breakwater on the river after approving a RM35 million project to rebuild a dam to solve cultivation woes for about 2,000 rice farmers in the surrounding area. The allocations were announced by Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy prime minister and a putative rival for Najib's job as premier.