UMNO leaders are keeping an anxious watch on the outcome of the Permatang Pauh by-election today to see if simmering anger over the recently implemented goods and services tax (GST) will cost them yet more votes.
The concern has risen after the Rompin election on Tuesday saw the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional's (BN) majority slashed by nearly half to 8,895 votes, in a BN stronghold made up of Felda settlers, farmers who have benefited from the BN government's decades-old resettlement scheme.
Umno is a key party in BN.
Former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who has criticised Prime Minister Najib Razak over the GST and been accused of hurting the party with his brickbats, put it bluntly yesterday: "I am not a factor. The people in Rompin are more concerned about issues like GST and cost of living."
The parliamentary seat in Pahang state was left vacant after incumbent Tan Sri Jamaluddin Mohd Jarjis died in a helicopter crash last month. Mr Jamaluddin had been the Member of Parliament for Rompin since 1990.
In the 2013 General Election, Mr Jamaluddin retained the seat for BN after defeating a Party Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) candidate with a majority of 15,114 votes. However, Tuesday's result saw BN's Datuk Hasan Arifin defeating PAS candidate Nazri Ahmad by only 8,895 votes.
Political analyst Azizuddin Mohd Sani said PAS was able to penetrate the Felda settlements by using the GST and plunging share prices of the Felda Global Ventures Holding Berhad (FGV). FGV shares yesterday were traded at RM2.08 compared to RM4.45 when the shares were opened to retail investors on June 28, 2012. Felda settlers are collectively FGV's largest shareholders.
"The younger voters really latched on to the issues because these really affect them. The votes in the Felda settlements were not for PAS but a protest vote against BN. PAS managed to swing many of the young voters from BN," said Dr Azizuddin.
He warned: "The indications are already here and if BN does not manage this properly, then GST will be a major stumbling block for Umno in maintaining its Malay support base in rural constituencies." A party insider told The Straits Times that if the voting trend in Rompin continues, then Umno can expect to lose 15 parliamentary seats in the next general election.
"We lost about 8,000 votes from the Malays in the Rompin by-election. That is a major blow for Umno. GST is an important issue because it affects the cost of living of ordinary people," he said, adding that Umno would be watching closely today's by-election in Permatang Pauh, Penang, a stronghold of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
"After our poor result here, we are eagerly awaiting how PKR performs in the Permatang by-election. If they are able to equal or get a greater majority, then this will be a major problem for us." Polls for the Permatang Pauh by-election begin at 8am and close at 5pm today, with 71,890 registered voters expected to cast their ballots.
The seat fell vacant following the disqualification of incumbent and opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim after the Federal Court in February upheld his conviction of sodomising a male aide and meted out a five-year jail term. His wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, will defend the seat against BN's Suhaimi Sabudin. PKR is expected to retain the seat.
This article was first published on May 7, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.