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After Rantau, which way forward until GE15?

The victory of Mohamad Hasan (Tok Mat) and Umno-BN at the Rantau by-election tonight was expected and had been forecast by many political observers. Yesterday, I wrote that Dr Streram Sinnasamy (PH-PKR) was up against heavy odds.

Ilham Centre has also published the findings of a random survey involving a few hundred respondents which showed that Tok Mat was likely to win.

It must be admitted, however, that Tok Mat's majority of 4,510 votes was beyond expectation; even the more upbeat among us thought it would not exceed 2,000 votes

Some may argue that it merely reflects the status quo, as Tok Mat had won with a majority of 4,613 at the 2013 general election. But post GE14, the latest results are bound to attract all kinds of analysis and prognosis.

Why BN won and PH lost

The demographics of the constituency are: Malays 53.44%; Chinese 18.81%; Indians: 27.01%; Others: 0.74%

Racial issues and religious politics still dominate among Malay voters, and both Umno and PAS continue to exploit the sense of insecurity felt by the Malay community with messages that they are under siege, their special rights and religion under threat — and that PH is under the control and direction of DAP.

Rantau has been an Umno stronghold for as long as we could remember, with Tok Mat as their ADUN (state assemblyman) and menteri besar for the past 3 terms. He has a chequered history in the constituency and has a reservoir of goodwill with the people.

Even the local Chinese and Indian voters were receptive and warmed up to him as the local and home-grown candidate.

There is also the keenly-felt awareness that Tok Mat is acting president of Umno and should thus be granted right of passage to be an elected representative again.

The close collaboration between Umno and PAS again paid dividends, with PAS supporters solidly rallying behind Tok Mat. The collaboration between the two parties is good for national politics, by giving the people a credible alternative to PH.

That is what a maturing democracy should be about, presenting people with credible alternatives.

Bread and butter issues such as the high cost of living faced by the people must have had some influence on the voters. At the same time, PH is still smarting from negative sentiments and perceptions as they struggle to live up to the expectations of the people.

Rantau results neither earth-shattering nor a game-changer

Given the above, and the realities on the ground, Tok Mat's victory was indeed a foregone conclusion, although greater scrutiny and in-depth analysis is needed to understand the implications.

Last month's Semenyih by-election might have greater significance, as a barometer of the pulse of the nation and the sentiments of the people.

PH had won there at GE14, but Umno-BN managed to wrest it back with a comfortable margin.

The result represents a clear and present danger for PH: some voters, most likely Malay voters, had gone back to supporting Umno-BN, and PH would need some deep soul searching to discover the reasons and act quickly to arrest the decline.

Under no circumstances can the Rantau results be viewed as being ground-breaking, earth-shattering or a game-changer. It was never a "litmus test" for Anwar Ibrahim as was portrayed by some, and The Star newspaper, who sought to create negative perceptions of Pakatan Harapan and Anwar in the event of a poor showing in the by-election.

However, it is Umno-BN that needs a convincing victory in Rantau to counter and stem the tide of many adverse reports and exposes about various financial scandals and mismanagement.

What now until GE15?

While eyes were turned to Rantau, there have been many new stories developing which could well impact the nation and shape the opinions of the people.

In a previous article last week, I wrote about positive developments on many political fronts which should augur well.

Among these arepositive signs of a smooth handover of power from Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Anwar;fallout from the Rome Statute controversy and the war of words between the Johor Palace and the government, which seems to have only strengthened Mahathir's position;
the realisation among stakeholders of the supremacy of the constitution and system of constitutional monarchy;the klepto cases and trials now under way;
more damaging exposures of the abuses by the previous governments and management in Tabung Haji, Felda and LTAT, with a slew of rescue packages being unveiled by the PH government; and
the promising outcome to the ERCL problem.

Last but not least is the people's acknowledgement that despite various challenges, Mahathir has been able to keep PH intact as a ruling coalition.

These are the silver linings in the dark clouds, including the dismal results from Rantau, which could well prove to be more definitive in restoring faith and confidence in PH.

PH needs to improve its communication strategy

With about 3-4 years remaining before GE15, Pakatan Harapan has ample time to deliver on its election pledges and address various issues, including the sense of insecurity among Malay-Muslims.

However PH and its component parties might be failing in their communication strategy which does not seem to engage, articulate and explain relevant issues well enough, causing them to lose traction. Umno-BN's media and communications strategy now appears to have the upper hand.

I am in full agreement with Rafizi Ramli who recently said that the government lacked an effective communication strategy to counter the opposition, especially when Umno and PAS play the racial and religious political card and take advantage of Malay Muslim-centric sentiments.

Many Cabinet ministers still act like opposition leaders, with statements and comments which are not helpful to the government. They were good cyber-warfare when taking on Umno-BN and PAS before GE14 but they have not been able to make the paradigm shift as the ruling coalition.

They must be more adroit, measured and circumspect in their communications strategy, which must be better managed and preferably run by professional media experts and advisers — if they want to effectively reach out to the people, and gain traction with them.

Wan Haron Wan Hassan is a senior practising lawyer, active in civil society movements

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