IF you have ever wondered why Barisan Nasional (BN) has retained power all these years despite the scandals and the opposition winning more votes in the last general election, then look no further than Kulim-Bandar Baharu.

The federal seat has swung from BN to the opposition in 2008 and back to BN in 2013. The last election was a close fight that saw BN winning with a 4% majority. On one side is loyalty to BN, the other is a rising consciousness that national issues can and do influence local living conditions.

You can ask Jam Dan, who has lived in Bandar Baharu, the rural state seat in the Kulim-Bandar Baharu parliamentary constituency in Kedah, all his life, first working as a oil palm harvester and, now, as a dish washer.

 Washing dishes at a small warung earns him a free meal and RM15 a day. This is less than the RM25-RM40 he used to earn each day collecting oil palm bunches, but at 64, Jam Dan can’t do the heavy lifting anymore. The big man used to harvest 20-40kg oil palm fruit bunches and load them onto lorries headed for processing plants. He would earn as much as he could collect in a day.

He shrugs at the conversation of three men at a table in the warung who are talking about the latest news, 1Malaysia Development Bhd, the economy, and how former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad is back in politics, this time with the opposition.

Jam Dan, who has voted in all the elections, said he has only voted for BN and didn’t see any reason to depart from that.National issues such as the scandal-hit 1MDB or the economy don’t concern him as much as the 20kg of rice and other staples he receives every month from local Umno leaders.

“I will still look at the candidates for state and federal elections. But when elections come, I will ask somebody here who to vote for,” said the tanned man, pointing to his friend.

His friend, Jamaluddin Latif, who seemed to know more about politics, also did not care about 1MDB, Dr Mahathir or suggestions that the economy wasn’t doing well.

Amid the usual grouses about the economy, Jamaluddin said people “boleh bertahan” (could cope).

“As for Dr Mahathir, I don’t trust him anymore as he is now working with DAP. His son, Mukhriz is okay. I like him,” said Jamaluddin, who is the Umno Sungai Buloh branch chief.

But Mukhriz alone, though a son of Kedah like his father Dr Mahathir, could not persuade the party man to vote for the opposition.

At another table in the warung, former “penghulu” Musa Ibrahim was busy convincing friends why the current administration had failed Bandar Baharu.

The retired district chieftain of 30 years said the area needed more development as promises by the current state government to build a hospital and improve government services had not been fulfilled. The cost of living had gone up in Bandar Baharu because of the Goods and Services Tax, he added.

“In the city, people can get a second job driving Uber, but in the village, our incomes are stagnant. The price of rubber is stuck at RM2 per kg for many years now. The higher costs caused by GST really hurts rural residents more,” said Musa.

It was clear to him that Bandar Baharu had to vote for the opposition so that life can get better.

A marginal seat

The Kulim-Bandar Baharu parliamentary seat is one of the 50 seats in the peninsula where the margin of victory in the last general election in 2013 was less than 5%. It is also one of the few seats that is evenly split between rural and urban voters.

The contrast between urban Kulim, another state seat in the constituency, and rural Bandar Baharu, means different issues come into play as to how voters will case their ballots in the coming national polls, due before August 2018.

In urban Kulim, national issues such as corruption, costs of living and job opportunities are on voters’ minds.

For long-time voter Chris Loh, the future of the country topped his list of issues during election time.

Although higher living costs affected him, too, the 64-year-old retiree said government corruption bothered him more and that he needed to vote “for the future of my children and grandchildren”. It was a euphemism for voting for the opposition.

Fresh graduate Zaim Mohd Talib had just started working at a bank on Penang island. Like many young men, he left Kulim for greener pastures as there was no work for him in his hometown.

He rents a room on the island for RM250 each month, and makes the hour-long drive back to Kulim on weekends.

The photography graduate said he could not find work in Kulim despite the nearby Hi-Tech Park. The manufacturing hub is full of blue-collar jobs that would put his arts education to waste.

“We need more job opportunities here in Kulim,” said the 23-year-old, at the Kulim Lake Gardens.

Besides this, Zaim is also worried about the cost of living.

“I can feel it. A few years ago, the price for nasi campur in Kulim – chicken, vegetables and rice – used to cost RM4.50, but now it’s up to RM6-7.

“When the cost of petrol goes up, everything else goes up, too.”

Will Kulim-Bandar Baharu swing again?

Where voters in urban Kulim seem more concerned about national issues such as 1MDB, corruption, living costs  and the state of the economy, those in rural Bandar Baharu are more interested in the strength of a party’s machinery and the choice of candidate.

During the 2013 elections, PKR’s parliamentary candidate, Saifuddin Nasution Ismail won the polling stations in Kulim by some 800 votes, but the Kulim state seat fell to Barisan Nasional’s Chua Tiong Ghee (majority 634).

According to PKR election workers, split voting occurred in Kulim polling stations and caused PKR’s Chu Maw Nian to lose the state battle. Kulim voters were said to be unhappy with PKR’s previous assemblyman, Lim Soo Nee.

Saifuddin, however, lost the Bandar Baharu polling stations by more than 2,400 votes, resulting in an overall defeat by 1,871 votes.

The PKR secretary-general was defeated by BN’s Abdul Aziz Sheikh Fadzir with 3.62% majority.

This was a huge swing against the opposition as its former MP Zulkifli Nordin had beaten Aziz by 5,583 votes (14.34%) in 2008.

In the coming general election, the opposition will need to break the dominance of BN in Bandar Baharu if it wants to regain Kulim-Bandar Baharu.