Will Pakatan tighten its grip on Penang?

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AS FAR as the consensus goes, Pakatan Rakyat is likely to retain power in Penang in the impending general election, riding on its dramatic sweep to victory in the 2008 polls.

In 2008, Pakatan won 29 of the 40 state seats mainly on the wave of Chinese votes cast by an electorate that was resentful of what they said was weak Barisan Nasional (BN) leadership in the state.

Despite the fact that the BN may be fighting a losing battle, its Penang chief, Teng Chang Yeow, insists that the coalition has no plans of giving the state up without a fight.

It's all about strategy

While Teng admits that the BN may not win the state back this round, he is confident that they have a fighting chance to regain some territory.

"We could garner 15% to 20% of the lost ground," he tells fz.com in a recent interview.

While he agrees that it was a conservative number, the Gerakan secretary-general maintains that when he was appointed the state BN chief by the prime minister barely a year ago, he was not given a set date to win back the state. He was given a task, which Teng describes as rejuvenation.

"My task is to build up the morale and the team to face the general election. There is no specific date set for me, but there is a specific task given to me," he says.

According to political analyst Khoo Kay Peng, BN's chances of winning back a few seats all depends on their strategy.

"They will have to come up with a smart strategy in trying to take away some seats, work their way to convince some middle ground voters and swing voters to support their candidate," says Khoo.

He points out nevertheless, that it will be no easy feat, as even some of the seats the BN currently holds may be difficult for the coalition to retain.

"If you were to trace back to the 2008 election, Umno may have won 11 of the state seats, but they won 6 of the seats with very, very slim majorities, including a majority of below 800 votes. These seats are Sungai Dua, Seberang Jaya, Sungai Acheh, Bayan Lepas, Pulau Betong and Telok Bahang.

Civil society and swing voters can make or break parties

But there are factors that both coalitions could use to garner more votes, Khoo opines. They include civil society and swing voters.

"There are a few tricks in Penang that political parties may want to recognise. One, of course, is the very active civil society movement; there have always been activists in Penang.  

"They provide a counter-balance to the (political) power. So these coalitions need to find out what issues these activists are concerned about," he says.

As for swing voters, Khoo says that compared with most states, their proportion in Penang is substantial, coming close to 40%.

"If you are able to put forth an argument that could bring back the swing voters, that could help you gain some seats," he says.

'Pendulum-like' Penang voters

While many believe that Penangites never fail to "surprise" when it comes to elections, according to Khoo there is a voting trend in the northern state.

"Somehow, sentiment and perception change very quickly for voters in the state. People actually do vote according to such trends," he says, pointing out the surprise turns in 1995 and 2008.

In the 1990 general election, DAP won 14 seats in the state legislative assembly, but they were almost wiped out in the next election in 1995, barely winning one seat, Batu Lanchang, with a 100-odd vote majority.

Subsequent general elections saw the DAP maintaining only that seat while PAS joined DAP on the opposition bench with one seat in 1999 and 2004.

The Pakatan-led government may have managed to keep Penangites happy over the past five years, and the state may be considered a "sure win", but there have been several issues that have sparked heated debates and may reduce their majority in the state.

These include housing problems, traffic problems as well as Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng's leadership style.

Since taking over, the state government has been accused time and time again by the opposition of not heeding the needs of the poor in the state.

DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, who leads the Pakatan coalition in the state, has also been accused numerous times of being "arrogant" and "cocky". Something both the opposition and analysts feel could work against the party.

"They look at the current leadership and people find that the current one, as described  by the current deputy chief minister, is cocky, arrogant and has a 'tokong-like leadership' style (behaves like a deity). That is not going down well with a lot of people.

"People want to see a strong but humble leader. They do not want to see a cocky kind. Especially Penangites, they are very particular about this," added Teng.

While Khoo agrees that leadership style is very pertinent to Penangnites, he points out that at the end of the day, the question still is, how effective one is as a leader.

State make-up and the odds

While the state is made up of the island and part of the mainland under one ruling state government, there are clear differences between the two.

Out of the 40 seats in the state, 23 are Chinese-majority constituencies, 14 of which are located on the island. Another 15 have a majority of Malay voters, with 11 of these seats being on the mainland.

In 2008, PR won 29 out of the 40 state seats (21 on the mainland, 19 on the island) leaving the BN with only 11 seats, a stark difference compared with 2004 when BN held 38 seats.

Of the 21 seats on the mainland, BN won eight while Pakatan won 13, mostly through DAP. As for the island, Pakatan won 16 of the 19 seats.

On the Parliamentary level, BN only managed to win two out of the 13 seats in the state in 2008, compared with the eight they held in 2004. Both the seats won were contested by big names in the party, including former prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for the Kepala Batas constituency.

Chinese voters may form a large part of the electorate, hence the bigger battle for the state will be in the Malay-majority areas on the mainland.

While winning all the Chinese majority seats may keep the DAP-led state government in power, political observers think that winning the Malay seats is also an important factor for Pakatan in this election as it will give them legitimacy in the state in view of the fact that the party has always been branded by its critics as a Chinese-based party.

Leadership style, swing votes and several other factors may come into play as Penangites decide the fate of both coalitions in the upcoming election.

It is almost certain that Penang will remain in Pakatan's hands, but will the hold be as strong? That question can only be answered when the last ballot is counted.

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