The opposition is hard at work in Felda settlements, hoping to win over the hardcore BN supporters in 55 Parliament seats in order to aid its quest to capture Putrajaya.
But just how significant would the impact be, if the opposition does make significant in-roads in Felda settlements?
While a major shift is highly unlikely, Felda settlers have shown that their allegiance to BN is not blind and that they will vote for the opposition should their interests be affected.
In the May 2015 Rompin by-election, a year after the goods and services tax (GST) was implemented, there was almost a 10 percent swing from BN to the opposition in several Felda voting districts.
This is even higher than the swing among non-Felda voters, which stood at between three and six percent.
Assuming it will be straight fights, like in Rompin, a similar 10 percent shift among Felda voters in other seats will be enough for the opposition to capture three constituencies from BN – Bentong, Bera and Labis.
These constituencies are significant, given the high profile of their incumbents.
Bentong is held by MCA president and Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai (photo), Bera by Rural and Regional Development Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and the Labis MP is Deputy International Trade and Industry Minister Chua Tee Yong.
Toppling Ismail Sabri will be a moral victory for the opposition as Ismail Sabri is a key warlord in Umno, with significant sway on the supreme council.
Plateauing support for opposition
While a five percent swing among non-Felda voters can bag the opposition more seats, the opposition’s potential to make bigger gains among this voter demographic is plateauing.
This can be seen in the results of the past two general elections.
With their efforts focused on urban and semi-rural voters outside of Felda settlements, the opposition made significant gains in 2008, pushing up its popular vote share by almost 14 percent, compared with 2004.
The opposition largely maintained this strategy in 2013, but preaching to the converted meant the pay-off was far smaller. Its popular vote share rose only three percent, compared with 2008.
If the opposition wants to win over more supporters, then it must focus on new ground, such as Felda settlements, where the high percentage of BN supporters means there are more people for it to win over.
With Umno-offshoot Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) with the opposition, it is possible for them to make a considerable dent in BN’s vote bank.
A recent survey by PKR vice-president Rafizi Ramli-led group Invoke found that Malay support for Umno is just over 40 percent – a drastic cut compared with 60 to 70 percent in 2013.
This raises the likelihood that the opposition could sway a higher percentage of Felda voters its way, similar to the Rompin by-election.
Assuming a major swing of 20 percent from BN to the opposition among Felda voters – double of what happened in Rompin – even a five percent swing in non-Felda areas could win the bloc an additional five seats. This is albeit with slim majorities.
These seats are Sik in Kedah, Tanjung Malim (Perak), Jerantut (Pahang), Jempol (Johor) and Sekijang (Johor).
For opposition, no straight fights, no deal
Felda constituencies are largely seen as BN vote banks, but in some areas, these constituencies are in fact held by the opposition.
In Kuala Nerus, Dungun, Raub, Temerloh, Sungai Siput and Kulai, the opposition won mainly on non-Felda votes, thus even a 20 percent swing to BN among their Felda supporters would not shake the opposition’s positions there.
These constituencies are held by PAS, except for Sungai Siput (PSM’s Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj), Raub (DAP’s Mohamad Ariff Sabri Abdul Aziz) and Kulai (DAP’s Teo Nie Ching, photo).
Therein lies the opposition’s biggest challenge in expanding their takings in constituencies with Felda voters.
PAS has unequivocally said it will not work with Pakatan Harapan, making the likelihood of straight fights almost zero.
If the elections are to feature BN fighting against both Harapan and PAS in three-cornered fights, then a split in the opposition votes will eat into the swing in Felda voters against the ruling coalition.
Harapan’s only hope in such a scenario, is to convince opposition Felda supporters to choose it, instead of PAS.
This may be difficult, as based on the 2013 election data, PAS is the most significant opposition force in Felda settlements.
The Amanah factor
How much Felda support PAS offshoot Amanah can bag for Harapan is currently unknown.
But it should be noted that two of PAS’ significant players in Felda constituencies, Mazlan Aliman and Suhaizan Kayat, are now with Amanah.
Both played key roles in PAS’ Persatuan Anak Felda (Anak), at one time the only organisation not linked to the federal agency speaking for the rights of Felda settlers and their dependents.
Mazlan and Suhaizan have continued their work in Felda areas, under the Amanah banner, to considerable success, while Anak is under new leadership in PAS and seems quieter in comparison.
An opposition roadshow organised by Mazlan, together with Bersatu, is drawing sizeable crowds, and those in attendance, based on Malaysiakini’s observations of a ceramah in Felda Jengka last month, include PAS supporters and members.
The roadshow, which features influential figures such as former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, seeks to woo Felda settlers away from BN by playing up on issues – such as cost of living, financial scandals, mismanagement of Felda and scandals surrounding the ruling coalition.
Pahang state executive councillor Shahaniza Shamsuddin warned Umno during its annual assembly last year that it risks losing Felda votes if the government does not address the settlers’ woes.
The appointment of Johor Baru MP Shahrir Samad – viewed largely as someone with integrity – as Felda chairperson in this crucial time indicates that the government is taking this warning seriously.