PR prepares to tighten its grip on Penang

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As far as the consensus goes, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) 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, the coalition won 29 of the 40 state seats mainly on the wave of Chinese votes cast by an electorate that was said to be resentful of “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.

While he 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 told 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 said.

According to political analyst Khoo Kay Peng, BN’s chances of winning back a few seats depend on its 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,” he said.

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

“If you were to trace back to the 2008 election, Umno won 11 seats, but six of them were won with a very, very slim majority, with the  majority in most of these seats being below 800 votes.” The six seats are Sungai Dua, Seberang Jaya, Sungai Acheh, Bayan Lepas, Pulau Betong and Telok Bahang.

But there are factors that both coalitions could use to garner more votes, Khoo opines, and these 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 said.

As for swing voters, Khoo said compared with other states, the proportion of such voters 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 said.

‘Pendulum-like’ Penang voters

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

“Somehow, sentiment and perception change very quickly for voters in the state. People actually vote according to such trends,” he said, pointing to the surprise turns in 1995 and 2008.

In the 1990 general election, DAP won 14 seats in the state legislative assembly, but it was 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, with PAS joining DAP on the opposition bench with one seat in 1999 and 2004.

The PR-led state 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 sparked heated debates which may reduce its majority in the state legislative assembly.

The issues 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.

Lim, the DAP secretary-general who leads the PR 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.

“People look at the current leadership and they find it, as described by the deputy chief minister himself, cocky and arrogant, with a ‘tokong-like leadership’ style [behaving like a deity]. That’s not going down well with a lot of people,” said Teng.

“People want to see a strong but humble leader. They don’t want to see a cocky kind. Penangites, especially, are very particular about this.”

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 Penang is made up of the island and a part of the mainland, 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 from 2004 when BN won 38 seats.

Of the 21 seats on the mainland, BN won eight while PR won 13, mostly through DAP. As for the island, PR 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. One of the seats BN won was Kepala Batas, held by former prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Chinese voters may form a large part of the electorate, but 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 the DAP in this election as it will give the party legitimacy in the state in view of the fact that it 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 PR’s hands, but will the hold be as strong? That question can only be answered when the last ballot is counted.

For more stories, go to www.fz.com, the website for freedom of expression and fairness in articulation.

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