THE campaign is already in full swing in Penang, which is set to be the most intensely-fought state in the coming general election.
At the Rifle Range flats, where over 8,000 votes are at stake for the Bukit Bendera parliamentary seat, which had an electorate of 65,126 in the 2004 general election, Barisan Nasional and Parti Keadilan Rakyat have put up banners and flags.
It is unlikely that the DAP would give way to PKR to contest in this predominantly Chinese constituency. The DAP has always put its stake here but PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is visiting the flats today.
Buntings announcing his visit have been put up while ironically, the DAP rocket is missing at the flats, which the party regards as its territory.
At Penang Road and Macalister Road, the DAP flags lined the two streets while at the Penang Chinese Town Hall, a huge crowd gathered to listen to the party leaders talk about the Hindraf issue on Saturday.
But the centre of attraction was DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, who is said to be leading the party's challenge in Penang.
A big screen had to put up outside the hall to accommodate the listeners in the state, where urban voters are said to be in an anti-establishment mood.
But Barisan isn’t taking all these salvoes quietly. MCA deputy president Datuk Seri Chan Kong Choy is in Penang today to meet party leaders and supporters, where its elected representatives are known for their service work.
On Saturday, Second Finance Minister Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop showed up at the Methodist Boys School, where the Penang Christian Association for Relief had raised RM350,000 for seven organisations.
The stakes are high as Barisan holds 38 state seats in Penang: Umno (14), Gerakan (13), MCA (nine) and MIC (two). The DAP and PAS have one each.
Barisan also has eight parliamentary seats: Umno (4), Gerakan (3) and MCA (1). The DAP has four while Keadilan has one.
The fight in Penang is for more than just numbers – this is also the home state of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Barisan has stepped up its campaign by telling Penangites to reject Guan Eng, saying he was from Malacca and an outsider.
Last week, state Barisan Youth chief Huan Cheng Guan said Penang was not a hotel for outsiders, like Guan Eng, who could “check in and check out” as they pleased.
He said there was no reason for Penangites to opt for such politicians as there was a large pool of qualified local candidates.
A DAP official retorted, saying that even the top Gerakan leaders in Penang were not “Penang originals”.
He cited the example of Bukit Bendera MP Datuk Seri Chia Kwang Chye, who like state executive councillor Teng Chang Yeow, is from Johor while Dr Teng Hock Nan, another Gerakan leader, was born in Kedah. Teng’s other brother, Chang Khim, is a DAP state assemblyman in Selangor.
But even as the decibels have gone up, there are many uncertainties in the state. No one is sure if acting Gerakan president and Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon is contesting a state seat.
He has refused to answer persistent queries from the media but party adviser Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik has suggested that Dr Koh could stay in the state. Certainly as acting president, Dr Koh can have much say in where he wants to go although the prerogative is with Pak Lah.
There is also a precedent – former Gerakan president Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu remained as Chief Minister. Even when Keng Yaik took over the party leadership, he was a Perak state executive councillor.
But times have changed. It would be awkward, if not a political disadvantage, to be left out of the Cabinet.
The fate of the MCA state assemblymen is also not clear. Except for Ooi Chuan Aik and Tan Teik Cheng, the rest of the seven MCA men are three-term elected representatives, who must give way to new faces under party rules.
While the senior assemblymen may have their base of loyal voters, regarded as “goodwill votes,” and essential in a tightly-fought race, fresh faces will also give Barisan an edge.
The MCA needs more educated, more qualified and more credible leaders to emerge although the present crop of working-class style assemblymen have earned a reputation for being service-oriented.
For the opposition, the DAP-PKR electoral pact has been slow and leaders from both sides have said, off the record, that the process has been “agonising.”
Both sides, believing that the anti-establishment mood was going to result in a swing, are holding their cards tight to their chests and unwilling to compromise, believing this is their time.
Despite the drumbeat, the DAP has also been reluctant to declare a fight for the state government. It has presumably learnt from the bitter experiences of the past.
The gerrymandering process, which weighs favourably for the semi-rural areas on the mainland, has made the job impossible for the DAP – these seats are safely in the hands of Umno.
This is a point the MCA, Gerakan and MIC have emphasised to Chinese and Indian voters – you may vote your communities out of the government.