As campaigning for the Pelangai by-election reaches its final lap today, both Barisan Nasional and Perikatan Nasional campaign workers are ratcheting up their programmes and outreach among the constituency’s Malay Muslims.
Barisan’s top leaders, such as Mentri Besar Datuk Sri Wan Rosdy Wan Ismail and his predecessor Tan Sri Adnan Yaakob, have repeatedly criss-crossed the three largest Felda schemes – Kemansul, Chemomoi and Sungai Kemahal – to secure the nearly 8,000 Malay Muslim votes in these settlements.
Perikatan has also brought its top leaders, including its chairman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and secretary-general Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin, to campaign in Pelangai’s Felda schemes.
At its mega ceramah tonight, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is scheduled to campaign for Perikatan.
What was previously thought of as a secure vote bank for Barisan, the coalition’s activists told The Star that changing attitudes among Malay Muslims in Pelangai, especially among younger voters, have turned this key constituency into a tight contest.
Interviews with Perikatan’s activists, such as Norazman Idris, have also borne this out.
Norazman, a palm oil smallholder, has been a longtime PAS supporter and activist who has always found it hard to persuade his relatives in Simpang Pelangai to consider voting for anyone else besides Barisan.
“They would not even attend ceramah by PAS, but this time, they are going to the ceramah by themselves, without any persuasion from me,” said the 56-year-old when met in Simpang Pelangai, a hamlet at an important intersection between the main road to Bentong and Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan.
What changed their minds, said Norazman, is the scarcity of locally produced rice in village markets and sundry shops, an issue that has been felt nationwide for weeks ever since the hike in imported rice prices.
“They say they are attending the ceramah because they want to listen to another side of the story that they are not getting from the government,” said Norazman, who lives in Triang but has come down to campaign for Perikatan.
Another Perikatan activist, Sopi Ibrahim, echoed this sentiment, saying that he has noticed even villagers who used to vote for Umno attending Perikatan’s ceramah and events.
“We are getting people in the 18 to 40 age groups, and they are showing an openness to us that we have not seen in this part of Pahang,” he said of the state constituency that has long been known to be an Umno fortress.
This change in sentiment among Pelangai’s Malay Muslim voters, who comprise about 71% of its nearly 16,400 voters, is raising eyebrows among Perikatan activists and leaders, as well as their rival, Barisan.
“Whoever can dominate Kemansul, Chemomoi, Sungai Kemahal and the Malay villages of Kampung Jawi-Jawi and Kampung Bukit Gajah will win the by-election,” said Perikatan’s Sopi.
Pelangai, an interior constituency that is blanketed by lush oil palm plantations on the border between Pahang and Negri Sembilan, used to be Adnan’s seat for eight terms.
During the 15th General Election (GE15), the late Datuk Johari Harun, who took over from Adnan, won it by a 4,048 majority, defeating both Perikatan and its rival at the time, Pakatan Harapan.
Pelangai was one of the 34 Malay-majority seats in Pahang that resisted the green wave of GE15 when Perikatan made significant gains, winning 17 state seats. In GE14, Perikatan’s PAS only won eight seats.
In GE15, Perikatan, which includes PAS and Bersatu, even managed to sweep constituencies such as Jengka and Chenor that are known for their large Felda settlements.
It is why senior Perikatan leader Datuk Seri Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man has said that Felda voters are no longer Barisan’s fixed deposit.
Realising this, Barisan’s activists have declined to say they are confident of securing the Malay vote, preferring instead to say that it is still a tight contest.
In Pelangai, Perikatan’s gains in the Chemomoi and Kemansul settlements were evident in the GE15 results, where it managed to win the majority of voters aged 40 and below.
A Kelantan Barisan official who is helping with the coalition’s campaign in Felda Kemansul said its rival scooped up more than half of the 600 voters aged 40 and below in that settlement.
“These are mostly the third generation or grandchildren of the original settlers. They work in cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Seremban and are going to return to vote,” said the Kelantan Umno official, requesting anonymity.
Tuan Rohana Tuan Idris, who is campaigning for Barisan in Felda Chemomoi, acknowledges this trend among younger Felda voters, saying it is the reason the coalition is working overtime to canvass for support among all settlers.
Felda Chemomoi has about 3,100 voters, of whom between 40% and 45% are below 40.
“We are aiming to get the majority of support from among the older first-generation and second-generation settlers who are currently living and working within the settlement.
“It’s the younger voters that we are worried about. So we can’t say we are confident but we are working hard.”
In Sungai Kemahal, Zamri Zainol also believes that Barisan has an advantage among older voters who reside in the settlement.
“The settlers have told us that initially, they did go and listen to the Perikatan ceramah. But they returned and said the opposition did not really offer anything new,” said Zamri, who is a member of Pakatan which is currently allied with Barisan in the unity pact.
“It was just the same old arguments about cost of living and racial incitements about the DAP. We hope that our voters won’t be taken in.”