Sunday, October 25, 2009

-Why People Alliance lost in Bagan Pinang

The People Alliance(PAS - PKR - DAP) needs to carry out a serious postmortem to find out why and how it was thrashed in Bagan Pinang.

Posters of the Kg Buah Pala demolition were found around Ladang Siliau in Bagan Pinang on nomination day – Photo by Tiger

In some ways, the NF victory was not unexpected. Perhaps the scale of the defeat surprised many. But a few keen political analysts noticed something amiss ahead of polling day and predicted that Isa would win comfortably as noted in my post .

So far, many have pointed to some obvious reasons for the NF’s landslide win:

Pull factors:

  • Isa was a popular, well-known – albeit tainted – local candidate.
  • Bagan Pinang is an New United Malays National Organisation stronghold.
  • All kinds of promises and enticements were made, especially to army personnel about improved facilities.
  • Questions about the postal balloting system persisted.
  • And of course, the mainstream media were used in the campaigning (but then the last three points were no different from previous by-elections – except there were more postal ballots here).

Push factors:

The problems caused by certain Pas politicians in Selangor, and the bad press the party received over attempts to ban concerts and the like could have contributed to the defeat. In many ways, these PAS politicians have not learnt from GE1999, when they mistook increased support for their party (then under the Alternative Front) as a vote for more conservative religious laws and an Islamic state. But then, the party was mauled in GE2004.

These Pas politicians are now making the same mistake by assuming that the support for Pas in GE2008 was because voters want more conservative religious regulations even at the local level in places like Selangor. But then, look what happened in Bagan Pinang…

“(The loss is the) result of Pas screwing everything, I think,” wrote a political scientist, who happens to be a Muslim, in a text message to me. He added that the result was expected and about time too, and lamented the PKR’s inability to stand up to Pas. He pointed out that “Anwar’s gutless stand” in this respect suggests that “they (PKR) are prepared to cut cards with the devil to get Anwar to power at all costs”.

In a way, the Pakatan defeat could have a silver lining: it could strengthen the hand of the moderates within Pas such as Mat Sabu, Khalid Samad, Husam Musa and of course, Nizar.

PKR’s own inability to rein in certain elected reps from upsetting Pakatan supporters might have also cost the alliance some votes. DAP-PKR bickering, intra-party infighting and the perception that some Alliance elected reps are more interested in securing positions of power instead of being focused on serving the people surely did not help the campaign either.

As for the DAP, one observer emailed me, “If you get the chance to speak to LGE, tell him to get his Pakatan act together. Take this ‘probation’ period of five years to do house cleaning and remove all the baggage in the party. Or else it will just be a one-time surprise.” The same would apply to other Pakatan leaders and their parties.

The demolition of Kg Buah Pala – and the loss of the Makkal Sakthi(People Power Party) factor – also would have eroded support for the Alliance especially in estate areas.

Tiger, a Chinese Malaysian campaigning for Islamic Party(PAS) in Bagan Pinang who had visited Kg Buah Pala, sent me the photo of the posters above along with the following remarks:

This was one of National Front’s tactics to win the Indian vote, and they did win the three Indian-Malaysian majority voting districts of Siliau, Ladang Atherton and Sua Betong – which in General Election 2008 were all won by Pas.

The issue of KBP will not be forgotten for a long time to come, as an example of social injustice perpetrated by a supposedly pro-people new state government.

If People Alliance cannot understand this, they do not deserve to rule.

Harsh words, no doubt, especially when the Kg Buah Pala deal was approved by the BN. But perception in politics is also important. Did the Alliance administration in Penang convey the impression that it was trying its level best to live up to its election promises and save the village by delaying the land transfer while it carried out an in-depth probe?

Among some segments of the middle-class, political betrayal may be par for the course. But when politicians make promises to the working class who are living on the margins of society, they’d better live up to them.

I was at the Freedom Film Festival in Penang on Saturday and one of the documentaries screened was about the demolition of Kg Berembang, a Malay settlement (and its surau) in Selangor, in 2007. One of the facilitators pointed out that the demolition swung popular support away from the NF in surrounding area during GE2008.

Just as Kg Berembang was one of the many factors contributing to the “perfect storm” that unleashed the political tsunami of 8 March 2008, the effect of the Kg Buah Pala demolition on the psyche of villagers and settlers elsewhere cannot be easily dismissed (even though Guan Eng is confident that the people of Penang are behind him).

The legal issues aside, it’s not going to be easy for either the National Front or People Alliance to allow the wholesale demolition of villages in future without broad-ranging consultation with settlers especially in cases where they have lived on the land for generations. The gut-wrenching spectre of grandparents, parents and children wailing and sobbing as their homes are wrecked will extract in its wake a heavy political price.

Which brings me to the final point, brought to my attention by a political economist: the issues raised by the Pakatan tend to come from a middle-class perspective (issues such as corruption, civil and political rights – important as they are). But there is a class divide here: people living on the threshold of poverty are struggling to make ends meet, to put food on the dinner-table and to provide for their families. This is not to say that democracy, accountability and human rights are not important. Of course they are.

But economic issues do play a part. Has Alliance clearly articulated its socio-economic agenda (apart from welfarism) when it is so obviously business-oriented? Does it even have a common position on a minimum wage and workers’ rights, for instance? What about insisting that all plantation firms provide their workers with adequate housing?

How does the Alliance propose to deal with rising food prices? Many are constantly complaining about ever-increasing food prices in the market. How can the Alliance talk about lowering or stabilising food prices when all its attention is on business and industry such that it barely talks about sustainable agriculture and farming?

And yet, higher food prices will hurt the poor the most. From what we have seen, the Pakatan seems unable to connect with the issues that matter most among many segments of rural voters – farmers, estate workers, fisherfolk – who remain cut off from the mainstream of development and the media.

So many lessons to be learned from Bagan Pinang – especially the fact that voters cannot be taken for granted anymore by either the NF or Alliance.

This was a defeat waiting to happen and it should serve as a reality check and wake-up call for the Alliance.

If the lessons are heeded, then this by-election defeat could be a blessing in disguise for the Alliance in its long-term struggle. If not…u will to Know what will going happen on the next General Election.

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