Voters in Merlimau and Kerdau go the polls today. Despite the expected Umno victories, campaigning continued until midnight last night in an all-out effort to win as large a majority as possible for Umno, and for PAS, to deny its rival a clean sweep.

Although these contests have been low-key, both Umno and PAS did not give up ground. Their campaigns foreshadow real challenges in the evolution of campaigning in rural areas.

While there are some innovations in these recent rounds of campaigning, there are real tensions underlying these campaigns, as both sides are struggling to come to terms with a more sophisticated electorate that expects more from their politicians, even in the rural areas.

Party, Party, Party

What distinguished both of these campaigns from earlier by-elections was the reliance on parties – not political parties, but rather free dinners with lucky draw prizes. Almost every night of the campaign, voters in both constituencies were fed and feted, featuring largely music of the 1980s.

In the Malay areas, local voters were paid handsomely for catering the political kenduri, while for non-Malays outside caterers were brought in, along with fancy lucky-draw prizes such as motorcycles. Most of these events were under the rubric of the 1Malaysia NGO, whose funding remains ambiguous and whose relationship with the component parties in the BN undefined.

What is interesting about these events is that they speak to the deficits in party machinery in the local areas within BN, including in Umno itself. These campaigns were nationally driven events, even in traditional BN areas. It suggests that the political parties lack the same caliber of political machinery of the past as the relationships to the rural areas has frayed.

Years of urban-centred development and inadequate attention to grassroots support across the political spectrum reveal a real political disconnect to rural communities. It is no wonder that fetes become a replacement for a decayed political machinery.

The unspoken messages

Moreover, devoid of any real political discussion, the fetes spoke volumes in what was not said openly. The BN, through the undefined entity of 1Malaysia NGO, will continue to feed you if you give them support and a select few of you will really benefit.

The lucky draw dynamic reflects a pattern of uneven development that is common in both constituencies as a select few have benefitted disproportionately through land acquisition and preferred allocations/access even in the rural communities.

This is most obvious in Merlimau where the dichotomy between those working for plantation giant Sime Darby and other landowners who are renting out their properties differ sharply from those who gained from the sale of land for state projects such the polytechnic school or other sponsored projects.

Malacca more than Pahang has become a showcase for excesses, and although this may not show itself significantly in this national contest, the terrain is more competitive when the 1Malaysia funding is not present.

Nevertheless, inequality is tempered by an appreciation of real gains. Both areas have experienced impressive development, with infrastructure and basic services. Much of this development in hardware has happened in the lifetimes of the overwhelming majority of voters.

Deep-seated paternalism

Unlike in areas such as Selangor, where the excesses in development have been blatantly obvious, there is little information about potential land scandals and less conflict over land development in these rural communities.

Few see the negative impact of the destruction of the forests and consider questions of environmental sustainability as they themselves are engaged and dependent on palm oil, wood processing and other related industries.

As such, there is a deep-seated paternalism that underscores support for the BN. Many voters in the Felda schemes especially see the BN as their patron, and are deeply reluctant to move toward the opposition. Some even fear the removal of their livelihood if they do not support Umno, as the unspoken message also implies a threat that goes to the core of their daily lives.

While many in the urban areas call for these voters to “wake up” and unfairly denigrate their BN support, it is critical to understand that they are making rational choices with the information they have based on life experience. They cannot be expected to give up what they perceive as their livelihoods and opportunities for their family for a by-election result.

In these rural areas, the BN expects its support to rest on what was delivered in the past and continued promise of rewards in the future.

Voters are also voting on the current conditions they face. In 2008, low commodity prices and high inflation worked against the BN. This round, while inflation continue to rise, commodity prices especially palm oil, have gone up significantly, with many in the Felda schemes earning a comfortable income.

The point here is that the economy continues to underscore shifts in support, irrespective of campaigning.

For PAS this round, the conditions are not ripe as incomes have increased to as much as RM4,000 due to palm oil prices, allowing many of these rural voters to survive the rising inflation. But with higher oil prices globally, the BN may not have the same guarantee of a more conducive environment in the future.

Show me the money… now

It is with an appreciation of the underlying vulnerability of the BN that it is doling out benefits. Tamil schools in Merlimau. Promised cess payments in Kerdau. Cash payments for family members. Goody packages of food items of rice and more.

BN’s ‘buy-election’ patronage largesse is common. But compared to other more heated by-elections, the amount offered in this round has reduced. The fact of the matter is that the BN does not give as much to rural areas as it aims to win support with as little allocated as possible.

More money is flowing in Merlimau than in Kerdau as the former is more semi-rural and the multi-ethnic/non-Felda dynamic introduces more uncertainty. Ironically, Merlimau is likely to deliver a higher winning margin.

Even more ironic is that the use of this tactic elsewhere has generated more demands. Voters in these constituencies want their money in advance, not in promises that could potentially not be delivered. They want the same amount of funds given in previous by-elections. They have knowledge of the other goodies elsewhere and expect the same.

The cost of elections through this ‘buy election’ tactic is rising and is not sustainable as voters are adeptly taking advantage of a strategy based on material gain for their own benefit.

Umno is caught here in this difficult costly patronage cycle as government coffers are being depleted for short-term political gains. This issue will play out in Kerdau over the cess payment issue as voters are concerned with receiving their promised benefit for producing alternative crops.

Just trust me

For BN, their response has been to rely on their past to hope that hardware developments will translate into continued believe in promises. It is hard to do this when personal ties is missing due to the weaker machinery.

The Umno candidate in Kerdau, Syed Ibrahim Syed Ahmad, for example, is not deeply connected to the community as he works outside of the area. To compensate for the possible questions that might be raised about Umno, they have launched all-out personal attacks on their opponents.

In Pahang, much of the attacks have focused on Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim, but it has also included rising PAS leader Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man and others over zakat problems. Nasty attacks on Pakatan national and local leaders are seen to make up for possible doubts of Umno.

The opposition has continued to join the fray with their own personal-oriented responses as campaigns have been about who should be trusted, especially in Kerdau, with their focus on Umno broadly rather than specific individuals.

They make little headway when Umno remains synonymous with livelihoods. In the Malay areas, the message of trust is tweaked by Umno to be tied to ‘ketuanan Melayu’ as racial issues are intertwined with charges that Pakatan is selling out the Malays.

Just follow me

This is where PAS comes in. PAS presents itself as an alternative, working as part of Pakatan. They also engage in negative attacks, although not quite to the same extent as they have focused much of their energies on responding to the attacks. Not able to compete in patronage and lacking local machinery in both constituencies, the pattern instead has been to try to appeal to the BN vulnerabilities.

The issue of inflation and corruption has been the core of the campaigns, but these have been obscured by a clear campaign strategy. PAS, like Umno, faces the challenge of moving their message of idealism and religion into concrete deliverables. Their campaigns have similarly have nationally driven. The messages have been difficult to penetrate due to a lack of information and more importantly, a failure to connect.

Little has been showcased about PAS’ governance record in Malay states such as Kelantan and Kedah. Rural voters have yet to be convinced that there is an alternative form of government that can deliver decent livelihoods. The message remains focused on the faults of the current system, rather than illustrating their alternatives.

While the opposition has made some headway in imparting its ideas on inflation and corruption, they have only touched the surface. Part of the problem has rested on PAS’ delivery.

On the ground, among some in the local communities, there is a sense of self-righteousness, as many local PAS campaigners feel that those who do not follow them are not good believers. Some do not mix well within the Malay communities. There still are concerns about being forced to follow a moral supremacy path, and many resent being told what to do by people like the PAS Youth chief Nasrudin Hasan.

This lack of trust of PAS among the Malays is a problem. Previous attention about the lack of trust of PAS among Chinese voters has diminished under the Pakatan rubric. Now PAS faces the same challenge it faced in 2004 – to win support among rural Malays without relying on an exclusive brand of religion that potentially alienates support.

Umno benefits from its outreach and networks, while PAS is more insular and exclusive. The same outreach PAS extended to non-Malays after is massive losses in 2004 did not extend to Malays, especially in rural areas.

This dynamic is especially important in rural areas, where communities are personal and networks are strong. PAS’ losses are as much a product of their own actions, as the unevenness of the contests.

Still a work in progress

Voting has been brisk this morning. These contests have not been fair, but to fully appreciate the results one needs to look beyond vote-buying and the unfair use of state resources.

Rural areas are becoming more competitive due to the dynamics within both the rural-tied parties. Weaker machinery, weaker political networks, lack of deliveries beyond the hardware, vulnerabilities to price shocks, new sources of information and personal attacks on leaders are all shaping and reshaping the terrain.

For now, the advantage lies with Umno. Its patronage machine and all-out campaign will yield short-term gains, but the evolution of campaigning suggest that questions are being raised about the sustainability of BN support as well as PAS’ gaps in engaging rural communities.

Both PAS and Umno need to improve their engagement with the rural electorate to shore up their rural base in the long term.