COMMENTARY, Aug 15 — The battle for the Malay heartland in Perak has begun in earnest with former Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad fielding a candidate under an Independent banner for the Slim by-election in a litmus test of his popularity within this key voting bloc.
The three-way contest for the by-election involves two parties and one independent candidate.
They are Barisan Nasional’s (BN) Mohd Zaidi Aziz, newly formed Parti Pejuang Tanah Air’s (Pejuang) Amir Khusyairi Mohamad Tanusi and independent candidate Santharasekaran Subramaniam.
Amir Khusyairi, however, will be contesting on an Independent ticket as Pejuang has yet to be registered officially.
In reality, the actual battle is only between the BN and Pejuang candidates given the constituency’s composition of 74 per cent Malays, 11 per cent Chinese and 13 per cent Indians.
At stake for Dr Mahathir is not just the image of his barely week-old party, but also his reputation as a Malay leader to be reckoned with.
Following one of the country’s worst political crises earlier this year, he was cut adrift from his premiership and party.
With all avenues of a return to the party that he founded blocked, Dr Mahathir set up Pejuang in the nick of time for the first round of a battle to gain recognition and acceptance among the Malays.
In a demographic where national issues are seen as the last pages of the book, Dr Mahathir is poised to discover whether the Malays still support his leadership or are prepared to dump him for a largely untested Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, as backed by battle-hardened stalwarts Umno and PAS.
Dr Mahathir’s stance in the Slim by-election, as espoused by his candidate Amir Khusyairi, is anti-corruption and anti-kleptocracy, a message that the voters in Felda plantations and lower middle-income groups may find hard to grasp.
Nevertheless, Dr Mahathir’s name still resonates, which will be the Pejuang candidate’s selling point on the stump.
With national issues, particularly the leadership tussle, taking a backseat, economic issues, specifically the cost of living and food prices, will be the main subject on the campaign trail.
Most interesting of all is Muhyiddin’s announcement today that Bersatu is set to join Muafakat Nasional (MN) imminently, which will be music to the ears of Malays who have longed for unity under one umbrella after PAS’ exit from Umno in the late 70s.
With this shot across the bows, Muhyiddin has got off to a flying start in the Slim by-election campaign and threatens to trip up Pejuang even before it can get its feet wet.
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