There is much discussion over whether the closing of the era of PAS giant Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat will coincide with an opening of the doors to Umno in the general election.
LIFE as a wakil rakyat in Kelantan often revolves around weddings, funerals and natural disasters.
But it was one of the happier options for State opposition leader Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad a few weeks ago when he attended a wedding kendurinear his house. What made him extra happy that day was the fact that a staunch PAS supporter whom he knows as Dollah and who used to snub him, came up to him at the gathering and chatted away like they were old friends and even adjusted the buttons on Alwi’s baju Melayu.
Alwi, who is Kok Lanas assemblyman, went home happy that a foe had become a friend. A few days later, Alwi’s eyes almost popped out when he spotted Dollah on the front row at an Umno ceramah, soaking in everything that was being said.
“His kampung is next to mine but he used to turn his face the other way whenever we passed on the road. But a miracle has happened, and I can only thank the Almighty,” said Alwi.
Actually, Alwi might also want to thank Datuk Dr Hasan Ali, the Selangor assemblyman and orator whom PAS sacked a couple of months ago. The change in political behaviour of his foe-turned-friend Dollah began after the latter attended a ceramah by Dr Hasan.
Dr Hasan, as everyone knows, was sacked from PAS after the Selangor Government complained about his over-zealous Islamic agenda. He is currently on a nationwide roadshow or as the man himself put it, “every district has been calling me to come, come, come.”
His roadshow has drawn limited interest in urban areas but Kelantanese flocked to his ceramah in Kota Baru, causing a massive traffic jam in town.
Dr Hasan is a dazzling orator and there were claims that people were in tears after hearing him talk of “parasites and leaders blinded by power” and how he “became a victim because he wanted to protect the faith.”
Many of them were stunned that this man who had fought for Islamic policies in Selangor was sacked by a party claiming to represent Islam. PAS’ sacking of this ultra voice has hurt the party and Umno politicians are hoping that Dr Hasan will make more visits before the general election rolls around.
But even without Dr Hasan, the sense among many politicians, be they from PAS or Umno, is that this election will spring surprises for both sides.
After 22 years of PAS, there is a sense that an era is coming to an end. It does not necessarily mean that the PAS administration is about to fall but after more than two decades in power, PAS has been put on the defensive about its governance of Kelantan.
Its first decade in Government was seen as some form of jihad against Umno and the Barisan Nasional and people were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. By its second decade, the locals expected more and the outcome of two by-elections in Kelantan since 2008 are an indication that people are starting to question the State Government’s performance and delivery record.
PAS won Galas in the 2008 general election but lost it in last year’s by-election. In the Manik Urai by-election, PAS which had won the seat by more than 1,500 votes in 2008, retained it with a majority of only 65 votes. It was a big blow to the party’s prestige as the incumbent and the party in power.
It is definitely not going to be another easy win for PAS.
A major issue in the coming election is the Mentri Besar factor. This is arguably the first time that both PAS and Umno have Mentri Besar candidates who are acceptable to the common people. Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat has been the glue holding everything together for PAS through its ups and downs in Kelantan and is still much loved and respected.
But he will be 81 this year and very few genuine democracies have octogenarians as leaders. It is quite embarrassing for the party although Nik Aziz is not power crazy. He wants to devote his remaining years to religious pursuits but his party is terrified to face the polls without him. They need him around and the understanding is that he will lead the party through the polls and step down mid-term.
On the Umno side, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed has emerged as a credible Mentri Besar candidate. And this is where the unique part of Kelantan sentiments come into play. The Jeli MP and International Trade and Industry Minister is a technocrat who walks the talk. But his appeal among Kelantanese is not because he is a high-flying minister or that he has a first class in economics from a top Australian university.
The locals are more impressed with his down-to-earth ways. He cycles to the mosque when he is home in Jeli where his house is as modest as that of most other villagers. He is too serious to be interesting but they do not mind because he is their kampung boy.
Alwi recalled a curious incident several years ago at the Kota Baru airport. He was catching the 6.45am flight to Kuala Lumpur when he noticed a three-wheeled motorcycle driven by a handicapped man racing into the airport grounds with Mustapa riding pillion. Mustapa or Tok Pa, the acronym by which he is known, later explained that his driver was late and the motorcyclist had offered him a ride to the airport.
Leader without airs
Alwi often says at ceramah that this is the kind of Mentri Besar people want – a man without airs. The handicapped motorcyclist is probably telling people the same story.
Umno’s downfall in the State has often been attributed to its politicians’ taste for grandeur and wealth - fancy cars, big houses and women trouble. PAS politicians have generally been able to avoid these “sins” although they have had their share of women trouble.
Nik Aziz on his part has been exemplary in leading the simple life. His plain attire and rustic kampung house is a powerful part of his old world political image. The Umno side is hoping that the Kelantanese will give Mustapa a chance, knowing that Nik Aziz does not plan to go a full term if he wins. The tagline being used is “Acu Test Sepenggal” (try it for one term).
Speaking to a gathering in Kelantan recently, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said: “If you support me, you must support Tok Pa. He is my representative in Kelantan.”
When asked if Mustapa was his choice for Mentri Besar, the Prime Minister said the matter had to be discussed. Then, turning to Mustapa, he said: “But if Tok Pa wants the job, I don’t have any problems.”
Najib has been quite strategic when dealing with the Malay heartland. His recent apology to Kedah folk for any hurt that his coalition may have caused, was noted not only in Kedah; it was a talking point among Malays in Kelantan. It has taken Umno a long time to learn that humility goes a long way and many people were shocked when the Penang Chief Minister asked voters to deliver telur or zero seats to the Barisan. It was equated with absolute power and came across as arrogant.
But Nik Aziz’s popularity aside, PAS’ problem is that elections in Kelantan are often about local issues that affect everyday life. They are used to entertaining the crowd with attacks against Umno. This time around, they also have to talk about what they have done to deserve a sixth term in power.
Asked to name three key achievements of PAS, Kota Baru assemblyman Datuk Wan Rahim Wan Abdullah said Kelantan has eliminated the “sinful practice of gambling”.
“We are the only State to do it. Tok Guru has said that whoever votes for PAS is blessed,” said Rahim who was the former State Legislative Assembly Speaker.
He claimed that when the State Government decided to bank with Bank Islam, other banks had expressed concern and that it was Nik Aziz who advised them to also go for Islamic banking. Rahim claimed that PAS has also brought peace and racial harmony to the State.
“We have the biggest Sleeping Buddha and the only Chinese-style mosque in the country,” he said.
The presence of mosques is a major measure of progress in the State but recently, Nik Aziz admitted that PAS had built only one mosque since coming to power, namely the Chinese-style mosque in Rantau Panjang; the other mosques were apparently built during Umno’s time.
PAS does not deny that it wants to implement hudud law but Nik Aziz often deflects fears about Islam by telling the ceramah crowd: “Show me one Chinese who has been forced to convert to Islam in Kelantan.”
It is simplistic yet shrewd and it works well with the kampung folk.
Religion is of utmost importance to Kelantanese but money also talks going by the surge of goodwill generated by the BR1M payments and according to Alwi, almost 80% of Kelantan households qualify for it.
Land is important to the Malays and Umno has been highlighting issues of land abuse under the PAS Government. Syed Azidi Syed Aziz, a blogger better known as Kickdefella, has exposed how a land scheme initiated by PAS had benefited largely party cronies and enriched selected businessmen. Kickdefella has written a book titled, Ladang Rakyat, Air Mata Rakyat (People’s Plantations, People’s Tears), on this controversial land scheme.
“The issue almost brought the Government down in 2004,” he said.
Kelantan is a State where there is very little middleground. The voters have clear-cut sentiments about who they prefer and both sides have almost equal support with PAS having the edge.
In 2004 when Barisan took 21 State seats against 24 seats by PAS, their share of the popular vote was almost 50:50. In 2008 Barisan won only six State seats against 38 seats by PAS and PKR; yet Umno had 44% of the popular vote against 56% by the other side.
“It does not take a big swing of votes for seats to change hands but I don’t see any signs of a shift as yet,” said Kelantanese restaurateur Juhaidi Yean Abdullah.
But even with Nik Aziz as a vote magnet, PAS will have to watch out because after 22 years, people are no longer wearing rose-tinted glasses.
Nik Aziz also has to indicate who his successor will be or he will risk a certain loss of confidence about the future. According to State exco member Datuk Nik Amar Nik Abdullah, this question will be collectively decided by the central leadership but he was unable to say whether it would take place before or after the election.
Almost every election in Kelantan since 1990 has revolved around the personality of Nik Aziz. Will Nik Aziz’s impending retirement be a boost for the party or will it cause votes to run over to Tok Pa? Will the closing of the Nik Aziz era coincide with an opening of the doors to Umno? Depending on who one speaks to, the answer is yes, maybe, no.
“That’s why the State is so interesting to watch,” said Juhaidi.