PETALING JAYA (Jan 10): The Barisan Nasional (BN) faces a major predicament in its battle to reclaim Selangor in the next general election - it lacks a clear choice of commander to lead its political machinery.
This is evident from the state of limbo in Selangor Umno, the senior partner in BN, which has been under the stewardship of Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak since he took over as the prime minister in 2009 and appointed himself as the state Umno liaison chief soon afterwards.
It also reflects the lasting effect of the BN's shock defeat in the 2008 general election, when the ruling coalition lost control of the country's most-developed state for the first time.
Political analyst Professor Datuk Mohammad Agus Yusoff of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia bluntly states that the BN, which has to deal with a full array of unresolved leadership issues, will be unlikely to win the state back from Pakatan Rakyat, despite having held it for more than 50 years before the damaging defeat five years ago.
"Leadership is one very significant issue here and, what does Umno have?" asked Mohd Agus. "It has money and (control of the) mainstream media. But in a place like Selangor, the online media plays a big role in the dissemination of information and it is not enough that BN can exploit the mainstream media.
"A majority of the electorate in Selangor is bound to gauge a party depending on the leadership of the party and its image, as well as the unity it shows and the personalities who are vying to be candidates," said Mohammad Agus to fz.com.
In the 2008 general election, BN only managed to win 20 of the 56 seats in the Selangor state legislative assembly. Of that, 18 were won by Umno and two by MCA. In at least nine of these constituencies, BN won by less than a 5% majority, while Pakatan Rakyat held an unassailable 36 seats prior to the defection of two of its assembly members and the death of another.
It was the worst ever defeat for BN in the state. In contrast, during the 2004 general election, BN controlled 54 of the 56 seats in the state. This reflects the force of the political tsunami that swept the nation in 2008.
The defeat took the party's divisions by storm, resulting in a massive shake up in its ranks, with Najib taking over control of the state Umno apparatus from former menteri besar Dr Mohd Khir Toyo.
Dr Khir, who was largely blamed for the BN's loss in the state in the 2008 election, however retained the Sungai Panjang seat with a comfortable majority. He was also dropped as the state's BN chairperson, a position he had held since 2000. He now leads Umno's state-level think tank.
His credibility was put to the test again, when he was charged with graft, upon which he resigned as the leader of the opposition in the legislative assembly. In the case, he was sentenced to a 12-month prison term more than one year ago for corruption involving two plots of land in Petaling Jaya. Dr Khir has appealed against the decision.
Nevertheless, according to Mohammad Agus, although Dr Khir had left office in disgrace, the former menteri besar is seen as a force to be reckoned with in the state, along with several prominent personalities including his predecessor Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib and Selangor Umno deputy liaison chief Datuk Seri Noh Omar. These leaders are well
connected with their electorate and are able to move the ground support in favour of the candidate they back.
The importance of reclaiming Selangor as a goal for the BN cannot be overstated. In 2011, Najib had urged his team to employ whatever “weapon was at their disposal” to take over the state instead of wallowing in defeat. However, the rallying call seems to have fallen on deaf ears as the internal power struggle in Umno remains a potent disrupting influence.
For a while, speculation was rife that Sri Serdang assembly member Datuk Mohamad Satim Diman would be the candidate of choice after taking over from Dr Khir as the leader of the opposition in the state legislative assembly in July 2011, but the appointment of former works minister and Sepang MP Datuk Mohd Zin Mohamed as BN coordinator in the state early last year, gave life to rumours that Mohd Zin stood a better chance as he was seen as Najib's choice.
Reports have also emerged that the BN is looking at fielding corporate personalities to take on Menteri Besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim, who is frequently cited for his skills in managing the state's coffers.
One such personality, whose name was bandied about, is property tycoon Datuk FD Iskandar, the chief executive officer and managing director of Glomac Berhad, after his appointment as the party's state treasurer but, the lack of resounding support for the political newcomer put the brakes on such speculation.
Despite repeated calls for Umno members to close ranks, discord remains ostensible with "too many warlords" wanting to take the lead, noted Mohd Agus.
"There is an old saying - in politics we cannot have 1,000 generals but one general with a 1,000 supporters," he said.
"Umno has to manage all this. There is no way to topple Pakatan in Selangor otherwise. They have to manage their campaign better. The issues they bring up are not sustainable," Mohd Agus pointed out.
UKM social scientist Professor Samsu Adabi Mamat also recognised the importance of having a clear leader for BN to stand a good chance of reclaiming Selangor. As he put it: "People work best with those they support."
"It is crucial for BN to put up a personality who has integrity and most importantly has a clean record," he said in an interview with fz.com.
Nevertheless, Samsu felt that BN's election campaign can be salvaged if the coalition, particularly Umno, focuses its efforts on the 35 seats in the state with a high concentration of Malay votes.
"These are seats with 60% to 65% Malay voters and these are the seats where Umno has traditionally contested. Seats contested by MCA and MIC have always been a bonus for BN," said Samsu. This is a more "realistic strategy" for BN to win, he said.
According to him, based on polls conducted by students in his faculty, the Chinese voters have more or else made up their minds on who to support in the coming general election.
"But BN should inject funds for their campaign in these areas especially those where the margin of victory was 2,000 votes and below," said Samsu.
According to Mohammad Agus, Pakatan had many flaws that could dent its support at the ballot box. In particular, he referred to the media focus on the alleged multi-million ringgit bailout of the former Talam Corp Bhd, claims of a water crisis before 2016 if the state government continues to delay the construction of the Langat 2 water treatment plant and rubbish collection problems after relieving Alam Flora Sdn Bhd of its duties.
However, the BN has failed to capitalise on Pakatan's weaknesses, he said. Even the departure of Badrul Hisham Abdullah, the Pelabuhan Klang assemblyman from PKR and the sacking of Datuk Hasan Ali, the assemblyman for Gombak Setia, have lost their edge with the passage of time.
"The sentiments against Pakatan are not prevalent enough for BN to woo back the voters," Mohammad Agus said.
"Truthfully speaking Pakatan doesn't have a great advantage except on exploiting the dissatisfaction of voters, especially as the urban voters know the difference between the powers of the state and those of the federal government, and they can make that decisive decision at the ballot.
"If the BN wants to kill the opposition but at the end of the day can't sustain the issues, but only temporarily tarnish their image, then there is no point," he explained.
But Samsu felt that BN has done fairly well in capitalising on the rubbish collection issue, where the state government terminated the contract of Alam Flora Sdn Bhd, confined its duties solely to solid waste disposal management and diverted household waste collection to local councils.
"People are very unhappy with the record of implementation because rubbish is mounting in their neighbourhood. This might look like a small matter but it is as real as any other problem in the state and shows the weakness of the Pakatan leadership," said Samsu, adding that this will work to BN's advantage.
Although the political pundits have previously noted the outcome of the general election will be determined by votes cast in the Malay heartland, it ultimately rests on the inroads made by Pakatan, said Mohd Agus. However, he cautioned that the community, which makes up 52.9% of Selangor's population, is "spilt" among Umno, PKR and PAS.
In 2008, Umno won in Sungai Air Tawar, Sabak and Morib as well as Sri Serdang, Taman Templer and Paya Jaras by a whisker as the majorities as less than 5% of accepted votes despite the constituencies being composed of between 50% and 85% Malay voters.
"This is simply unfortunate for the BN. The composition of urban voters in Selangor is mainly Chinese but this group is not satisfied with BN's policies which in the past had been against their welfare. In almost every city and suburb in the state there are 20% to 26% Chinese voters."
"They are the kingmakers and tie-breakers this time around and it is to the federal opposition's advantage," Mohd Agus said, in reference to Pakatan.
This projects a bleak chance for MCA, which controls Kuala Kubu Bharu and Sungai Pelek, said Mohd Agus, as it is only a matter of time that these seats fall to Pakatan, due to the sway in sentiment among the Chinese. The MCA had lost its chance to make its presence felt by capitalising on issues affecting the community.
"BN has to re-strategise and re-think their campaign direction and it can be done in a few days if they all come to an agreement to work together to field good candidates and adopt policies that ease the anxieties of non-Malays," he said.
But all is not lost says Samsu as he opined that 30% of the total number of voters, which stands at about five million, are "fence sitters" and "undecided".
"If there are 30% who are supportive of Pakatan Rakyat but 40% supportive of BN, all that is left in between is that 30%."
Referring to them as the "third force", the professor pointed out that efforts must be "tripled" to gain their trust and their votes.