DATUK Seri Azmin Ali had been in top form in the run-up to the Year of the Dog.
The Selangor Mentri Besar had driven himself to the Seri Gombak market a few days before the Chinese New Year to hand out ang pows and oranges to local residents. He looked handsome and energetic and wore a big smile, especially when a little girl struck a pose for the cameras.
According to Wangsa Maju MP Datuk Dr Tan Kee Kwong who was at the event, Azmin was in an optimistic mood as he thanked the Chinese for their support.
Three days later, Azmin was cradling his first granddaughter, a Valentine’s Day baby. He said it felt incredible to be a grandfather or Tok Dad, as he will be known.
A video posted on his Instagram account showed him undergoing some rather painful-looking physiotherapy, which he said will go on for at least a month. Back injuries take time to heal and it could not have happened at a worse time for him.
The general election (GE14) is only a couple more months away and as PKR deputy president, he will have to go around the country to campaign.
Moreover, it will be ground zero in Selangor. A tough battle lies ahead with Pakatan Harapan, Barisan Nasional and PAS going for broke.
There will be multi-cornered fights in all of Selangor’s 22 parliamentary seats, while 45 of the 56 state seats will face three-cornered contests.
But, said Kapar Umno division chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah, not all multi-cornered fights will favour Barisan and there are a few seats where Umno will struggle if the opponents are Parti Pribumi and PAS. Such a situation could see PAS emerging as the victor.
The state opposition has also not been as noisy as it was in the run-up to GE13 but, as they say, calm waters do not mean there are no crocodiles. The Barisan side has been quietly working the ground, focused on not repeating the mistakes made in 2013.
The biggest mistake they made in GE13 was being over-confident. They misread the ground and imagined that Selangoreans were ready to switch back, but the Chinese in particular were dead set on changing the Federal Government.
Barisan leaders are not making any assumptions about the Chinese vote this time, although they could sense warmth and friendliness wherever they went during the Chinese New Year.
The crowds were bigger, the smiles were broader and a few of them openly told Faizal that “this time is different, believe us”.
“I am afraid to believe after what we went through. This time, we are going in with our eyes and ears wide open,” said Faizal.
Batang Kali assemblyman Datuk Mat Nadzari Ahmad Dahlan went around the Chinese new village in Ulu Yam Baru on a motorcycle during the Chinese New Year. He dropped by the Hokkien Association and also joined some locals for Chinese tea.
The tall and good-looking Mat Nadzari has natural people skills, somewhat like those of Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. When he arrives at a venue, he does not only greet those along the aisle. He goes all over – in between chairs, from one side to another – to shake people’s hands.
“It’s not like before when they didn’t want to have anything to do with us. We can talk like friends now,” he said.
Some of the Chinese folk would throw their arms around him and an elderly Chinese lady patted his tummy affectionately when he gave her an ang pow. Another local resident posed with him, both of them showing the thumbs-up as well as a “thumbs-kiss”, the thumb version of a high five.
But DAP is, without a doubt, still the Chinese favourite and the general opinion is that the party will retain the 15 state seats it won in 2013.
In fact, DAP is asking for an additional two seats in ethnically mixed areas, fuelling speculation that it is planning to put up Malay candidates and make a bid for the mentri besar job.
What it means is that Azmin cannot assume that he will be the natural pick for the top job after the polls.
PKR won 14 out of 21 state seats contested in 2013. It has to perform better if Azmin wants to claim the job again. But is it possible with PAS on the loose?
Even Azmin’s parliamentary seat of Gombak will be shaky without PAS support. Gombak is a Malay-majority seat and PAS, which has a strong presence in Gombak, is credited with carrying him through the last two general elections.
Pribumi supremo Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has been causing ripples everywhere but somehow, his party is not seen as a serious player in Selangor and the general opinion is that Pribumi may not win a single seat in the state.
Most pundits also think that PAS will be lucky to win six or seven seats. So, what is the point of the party contesting 45 state seats?
Moreover, it is planning to go against DAP in Sekinchan, Sungai Pelek, Kuala Kubu Baru and Teluk Datuk, where there are sizeable Malay voters.
PAS is unlikely to win in those seats. It is more of a grudge fight: If we cannot win, we will make sure you lose.
“DAP has been asking the Chinese not to support us. What’s wrong if we ask the Malays not to support DAP?” said Roslan Shahir, the PAS election director for Selangor.
Sekinchan, which is 39% Malay, 57% Chinese and 2% Indian, looks quite safe for DAP’s Ng Suee Lim, who won with a majority of 2,239 votes. But Ng was not taking any chances and he organised a big gathering for Dr Mahathir to address the Sekinchan voters.
However, DAP is in danger in Sungai Pelek, which MCA lost to DAP in 2013 because of Umno infighting.
Then, Sepang MP and Umno division chief Datuk Mohd Zin Mohamed axed his division rivals, who were incumbent assemblymen. It was insane because they were winnable candidates. Mohd Zin’s own division Youth chief was so outraged that he stood as an independent against him.
As a result, Umno lost the parliamentary seat, as well as two of the three state seats. The sole survivor was Dengkil assemblyman Shahrum Sharif, whose father was a well-known figure in the area. Mohd Zin is gone and Umno aims to take back Sepang and the state seats of Sungai Pelek and Tanjong Sepat.
Shahrum is also seen as a potential mentri besar candidate for Barisan. He attended religious school but went on to the United Kingdom, where he graduated in electronic engineering and pursued a master’s degree in business administration.
Shahrum is one of five potential names that include Mat Nadzari and Sungai Panjang assemblyman Budiman Mohd Zohdi.
The other two are personalities whom Barisan is planning to field in Selangor and who are said to have the wow factor.
“I don’t want to spoil the surprise, just wait and see,” said Faizal.
Various surveys have shown that up to 30% of Malays in Selangor are still undecided or reluctant to say who they prefer to run the state.
“The political institutions are not what they used to be. That’s why many Malays are still undecided. They are waiting to look at the candidate and see if that candidate can help them and stand up for what they believe in,” said Rita Sim of the CENSE think-tank.
Sim said there is no denying that many in Selangor are disappointed that Pakatan has been unable to get their act together.
“How it will translate into votes is the big question,” she Added.
Azmin has also been put on the defensive over the Ijok controversy, a complicated conflict of interest involving the rakyat, powerful business and the state.
A day after returning to work and still wearing a neck brace, Azmin went to inspect a water treatment plant in Dengkil before arriving at Sungai Buah to hand over keys to affordable homes and welfare aid to the villagers.
His back pain does not seem to have affected his vocal chords because he deliverd a fiery speech, giving his side of the story on the Ijok issue and blasting a TV station for its reports on the matter.
Journalists in Selangor who have seen mentris besar come and go in the state often say that it is a cursed seat because so few of them had happy endings.
The pressure will only increase in the battle for Selangor because the cursed seat is also a coveted seat.
Pakatan has been blowing its trumpet about toppling the Umno fortress in Johor. It might want to put its effort into defending Selangor because the state is no longer a Pakatan fortress without PAS to bring in the Malay vote.