By-elections fight tougher for Pakatan without PAS
LIFE in Sekinchan in Selangor felt good in the cool breeze. The sun was about to set and the rice fields rippled like a sea of gold.
Across a narrow country road from the fields, a pair of middle-aged women were lounging outside a temple devoted to Nine Emperor Gods.
They were forthcoming about life in this rice-growing village. But the moment the talk turned to the by-election this Saturday, the shutters came down on their expression.
Three years ago, these very same people would have eagerly volunteered their political opinion and pressured others to vote for the opposition - even if the candidate was from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which has plans to bring the controversial Islamic penal code into Malaysia.
This is a Malay heartland seat and the Chinese, who make up 31 per cent of the 40,000 voters, are surrounded by a Malay hinterland.
Three years ago, the Chinese voice had occupied centre stage in Malaysian politics. But this is no longer the case, given the significant shift in Malay politics and sentiment.
The Chinese are free to support who they want but their days as kingmaker in national politics seem to be over.
The outcome of the recent Sarawak election drove home the point, and the twin by-elections this Saturday - with the other in Kuala Kangsar, Perak - will underscore the reality.
Umno will never return to the kind of supremacy it enjoyed during those golden years of Malay politics but it is now at its most confident and stable since the 2008 political tsunami.
A great deal of the political shift has to do with the fact that PAS is now out of the opposition coalition.
The Islamic party brought with it the Malay numbers and the moral clout. Without the PAS presence, Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat have been left floundering and more dependent on the Chinese.
The situation is further compounded by the fact that PAS and Umno seem to be closer than ever before.
Now, without a strong Malay/Muslim party behind it, DAP's attacks against Umno become perceived as racial and even anti-Islam.
A few days ago, a DAP ceramah (gathering) in Kuala Kangsar was forced to stop temporarily following complaints from people praying in a nearby mosque.
Kapar Umno division chief Faizal Abdullah, who is overseeing two voting areas in Sungai Besar, said the Barisan Nasional campaign revolves around breaking of fast, terawih prayers and the late night or supper session.
The focus is also on house-to-house campaigns and walkabouts by the candidate Budiman Mohd Zohdi.
Meanwhile, journalists in Kuala Kangsar are still getting used to a campaign where the candidate cannot campaign.
Barisan candidate Datin Mastura Mohd Yazid is still observing the Muslim mourning period, and her four sons have been campaigning on her behalf.
She was an active and supportive political wife but the death of her husband has left her looking sombre.
The PAS candidate Najihatussalehah Ahmad is a pleasant-looking woman who speaks Chinese. If this was 2013, the medical doctor with a mouthful of a name could have made it past the tape but, again, the wind has shifted.
DAP and Amanah are also struggling to find their way around because they have no established network in Kuala Kangsar.
The foregone conclusion of the polls means that outstation voters who stay far away may not bother to make the effort.
Another likely deterrent is that many younger voters who do not support Barisan have also given up on Pakatan Harapan.
The two by-elections could not have come at a worse time for the troubled Pakatan Harapan.
They have laid bare its lack of unity and the big hole left by the exit of PAS.
Without PAS, the coalition is limping along on one leg and nowhere is this more obvious than in Sungai Besar.
"Selangor is supposed to be a Pakatan Harapan stronghold and there is a lot at stake here," said political analyst Khaw Veon Szu.
Banners of Azmin Ali are strung along the main roads but the handsome Selangor Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) has not been seen in Sungai Besar since nomination day.
There is talk that he is embarrassed by the fact that two partners in his state government are fighting for the seat.
But the real headache for him lies ahead because the signs are that the political tsunami of 2008 is starting to retreat.
The outcome of the two by-elections will be more than just about claiming the seats.
It could be the harbinger of what lies ahead in the next general election.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK