On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Battle royale taking shape in Kedah

One party head, in particular, was concerned whether his
party would get any seat at all, but yesterday's meeting was just the first
round as more meetings have been scheduled in the coming days.

There was another important matter on his table – his travel itinerary to
Kedah, the frontline state of the opposition front, ahead of the general

The visit to the northern state on Monday is part of the Prime Minister's
nationwide whirlwind tour before he decides on the date of the elections,
expected to be called anytime now.

Kedah has been given special emphasis by PAS and Parti Keadilan Nasional
because they believe they will be able to capture the state following the fall
of Kelantan and Terengganu.

Four of the Islamist party stalwarts – secretary-general Nasharuddin Mat Isa,
former Mesjid Negara imam Taib Azamuddeen Mohd Taib, former Youth chief Mahfuz
Omar and fiery orator Mohamed Sabu – are defending their parliamentary seats in
this rural heartland.

Keadilan has also announced that it is fielding vice-president Tian Chua and
supreme council member Irene Fernandez, an outspoken advocate of migrant
workers' rights, in the state.

Umno has also regarded Kedah as a state to be defended passionately as two
former prime ministers, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, hail
from the state.

With a battle royale looming, Abdullah, a respected religious scholar, is
heading to the state to tell the voters that Islam is not just the monopoly of
PAS politicians.

In previous stops, especially in Kelantan and Terengganu, he repeatedly told
his audience of farmers that God did not tell Muslims not to work too hard but
instead asked Muslims to strive for progress and to do so in moderation.

He has countered allegations by PAS that the Barisan government is secular and
not Islamic, pointing out that the Government had introduced Islamic practices
in finance and education.

At the same time, Abdullah has also reassured non-Muslims that he is a leader
of all Malaysians, regardless of their religion and race. He has also pointed
out that their rights would be protected, as entrenched in the Federal

The stakes are high. In the 1999 general election, Kedah Barisan took eight
parliamentary seats while PAS won seven. At state level, Barisan has 23 seats
against PAS' 12 and Keadilan's one.

The Barisan is putting in extra efforts to win back the lost seats because
gerrymandering, common in all democracies, has always benefited the ruling

As far as figures are concerned, the re-delineation exercise has made the job
of the opposition more difficult.

Mahfuz, for example, won his Pokok Sena seat with a 3,637-vote majority, but
this time, the Draga state seat, with a large Chinese electorate, has been
shifted from Alor Star to Pokok Sena.

The Alor Star seat is held by MCA central committee member Datuk Chor Chee
Heung, a popular politician who has held the seat for two terms. He won the
Alor Star seat with a 14,589-vote majority.

Tian Chua has been speculated to contest against Chor this time.

Nasharuddin, who won his Jerai parliamentary seat by a 182-vote margin, is also
having a headache as the Gurun state seat, also with a sizeable non-Muslim
vote, has been moved from the Merbok parliamentary area to Jerai. Former
Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin won the Merbok seat with a 15,376-vote
majority in 1999.

The PAS propaganda machine has, to some extent, convinced its supporters and
opposition sympathisers that the Barisan is in danger of losing Kedah but the
figures seem to suggest otherwise.

In the 1999 polls and the subsequent Anak Bukit by-election, PAS won four parliamentary
and eight state seats with three-digit majorities.

The political sentiments in 1999 were very much different then.

The Malay voters then were upset with the manner the Government had handled the
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim issue and much of that anger was translated into votes
against the Barisan.

A new man is now in charge of the Government and Umno – and Abdullah fits the
image of a Muslim leader respected by the largely conservative electorate in

Abdullah's first duty on being appointed Prime Minister was to visit the
flood-hit padi fields of Kedah and to announce that agriculture would top his
agenda from now.

Such talk has certainly helped Abdullah, who speaks the northern Malay dialect,
score points in the fight for the hearts and minds of Kedahans.