Is PAS really strong in Kelantan? Is UMNO ready to retake the state? Or will there be a new government in Kelantan in the form of Pakatan Harapan and Bersatu in the coming general election?
In my more than twenty visits to Kelantan since 1993, including several extended field research trips for my honours degree thesis on PAS between 2002 and 2004, I have been always amazed by the political sophistication of the people of Kelantan.
Kelantanese elected successive PAS administrations between 1959 and 1978, and since 1990 till today. A strong sense of Kelantan regional sentiment vis-à-vis the federal government is an important factor, then and now.
In all elections since coming back into power in 1990, the confident yet humble Tok Guru Nik Aziz was a constant positive factor for PAS. Alas, the wise ulama is no longer with us, since 2015.
The uniqueness of Kelantan includes the strength of its people to reject the ridiculous “Chinese bogeyman” fear mongering tactic created by UMNO. In fact, the “fear of DAP” storyline that often works in favour of UMNO in many Malay-majority constituencies, has never worked in Kelantan because Kelantanese are more secure with their identity.
However, with PAS being seen closely aligned to UMNO in recent times, and with UMNO being bogged down by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s unpopularity, PAS is slowly losing its regional/anti-federal party streak in the eyes of many Kelantanese.
Kelantan boosts a large diaspora of people living in the Klang Valley who continue to vote back home. Some researchers believe that more than 20 percent of Kelantan voters reside outside Kelantan. Most of the time, they vote according to national mood swing which currently does not favour Najib and whoever associated with him.
Therefore, the myth that PAS could be a national spoiler, as a third force, particularly to Pakatan Harapan, in the upcoming general election needs to be examined closely. Somehow many political pundits have taken PAS’ strength in Kelantan for granted without much scrutiny.
A closer look reveals a very different scenario, perhaps even shocking to some people. In the battle for the Kelantan state assembly during the coming general election, PAS may not be able to maintain its third force ambiguity. The fact is PAS may be compelled to form an electoral pact with UMNO in Kelantan, whether by choice or expediency.
Assuming Amanah can pose a serious challenge to PAS in 10 of its 33 incumbent state seats while Bersatu is able to do so in 5 of UMNO’s 12 incumbent state constituencies, PAS and UMNO may not have the luxury of contesting against each other in Kelantan.
Also assuming Amanah, Bersatu and PKR does not contest against each other but form a formidable coalition – battling either PAS or UMNO, or even both, in three or four corner fights – the major losers won’t be the Pakatan Harapan and Bersatu.
If PAS and UMNO can’t find an agreement to form an electoral pact, and decide to fight each other – while Pakatan and Bersatu form a coalition to put a single candidate in each seat – no one would be certain of the outcome of the seats, especially the marginal ones.
If PAS and UMNO each suffers a 10 percent decline in their vote share – due to their association with Najib – and they still continue to battle in three-cornered fights, PAS may lose Kelantan while UMNO can kiss goodbye its dream of recapturing the state.
In the 2013 general election, PAS and PKR both received a total of 425,291 votes (55.26%) while Barisan Nasional 343,416 votes (44.62%). PAS won 32 state seats out of 45 while PKR has a state seat of Guchil which was won with only 49.9% of votes.
Of PAS’ 32 seats, 13 were won with less than 55% of votes. Of UMNO’s 12 seats in Kelantan assembly, 9 were won with less than 55% of votes.
In other words, 23 of 45 Kelantan seats – slightly more than half – are marginal seats which would be vulnerable for the PAS government if Pakatan Harapan and Bersatu put up a formidable coalition while UMNO and PAS fight it out against each other.
Never underestimate the political wisdom of Kelantan voters. I have met many Kelantanese throughout the years and I have high respect for them. If the mood changes in Kelantan, PAS and UMNO would be forced to form a pact. Thus, the myth of PAS being a strong third force may just be a farce.