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BARISAN STRONGHOLD: Opposition bid to make inroads has failed thus far
THE huge white tent at SK Bandar Baru Beris Jaya in Sik, Kedah, was all set for the more than 10,000 mostly Federal Land Development Authority settlers and their family members coming for iftar (breaking of fast) with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Felda chairman Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad had, for several hours before the yearly national-level Rahmat Ramadan Warga Felda event, been monitoring the preparations.
The settlers were the happiest of the lot that day. The food served by Felda D'Saji, the Felda-owned caterer providing job opportunities in food and beverages sector for the children of settlers, tasted better than usual.
Many were contended, sharing light moments as they savoured the delicious spread. While counting their blessings, they were grateful that the prime minister had kept his promise that they would continue to get what they had been receiving prior to the listing of Felda's commercial arm, Felda Global Ventures Holdings (FGV) Bhd, on Bursa Malaysia.
They were happy that as in previous years since 2003, there would be duit raya for Ramadan and Hari Raya Aidil Fitri. Najib announced duit raya totalling RM43.2 million for all settlers in appreciation of their contributions towards the development of Felda.
A total 103,597 settlers would receive RM400 each while another 9,038 settlers who do not sell their produce to the authority would get RM200 each.
As expected, the move, like the RM15,000 per household incentive from the listing of FGV for Felda's 112,635 settlers, has been seen by the opposition as a bid to gain support from the Felda community, in particular the second generation, which has become the focus of both political blocs for the coming general election.
"The opposition is trying hard to make inroads but Barisan Nasional is still the settlers' choice. Look at the results of Tenang and Kerdau (by-elections), where there are Felda schemes," Isa said in an interview at his office recently.
The impact of "Himpunan Oren Selamatkan Felda" (Orange rally to save Felda) had been minimal, he said, as the majority of settlers were not against the FGV listing.
The rally, organised by Pas-linked Felda Settlers' Children's Association (Anak), had proceeded despite FGV's successful listing almost two weeks earlier on June 28. Less than 5,000 supporters, compared with an earlier target of 20,000, took part in the rally.
Pas, in particular, can make all sorts of claims of increased support in Felda schemes but the facts and figures contradict it.
In the Tenang by-election in January last year, despite nightly ceramah by opposition leaders, including Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Pas president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, Felda voters from three settlements -- Tenang, Chemplak and Chemplak Barat -- contributed about 60 per cent of the votes garnered by the Umno candidate.
Voters from Kerdau's three Felda settlements -- Felda Jengka 22, 23 and 25 -- home to almost half the 8,999-strong Kerdau electorate, contributed 40 per cent of the votes garnered by Umno's candidate in the March 2011 by-election.
The Islamist party won only two extra votes in Jengka 25, up from 41 votes in 2008.
More than two million people are involved, directly or indirectly in Felda, about half a million of whom are voters. Felda settlers, including their extended families, number slightly less than two million and are scattered in 317 land schemes, mostly in Pahang, Johor and Negri Sembilan.
As these settlers form the bulk of voters in 54 of the country's 222 parliamentary seats and are predominantly Malay, they are a core support base for BN.
An important political force, Felda settlers are traditionally Umno loyalists and, up to 2008, only about 10 per cent favoured Pas.
Pas now claims 25 to 30 per cent support in some Felda schemes, especially in Pahang, because of campaigning and recruitment drives as well as the roles played by Anak and opposition-linked non-governmental organisations to win Felda votes.
The opposition groups are behind a series of suits filed against Felda.
Umno has responded with its own partisans and Isa said he and Felda officers had been holding regular briefing sessions with the settlers to rebut issues raised by the opposition, particularly on FGV's listing.
Isa is aware that discontent can affect the delivery of votes in the 54 parliamentary and 92 state seats that contain Felda schemes.
Mazlan Aliman, the Pas central committee member and Anak president, believes that the political landscape is changing and that votes cast by Felda settlers in the coming general election could affect states like Pahang, Johor, Negri Sembilan and Terengganu. The son of a settler in Felda Bukit Ramon in Pulai, Johor, says it only takes a shift of between five and 15 per cent to produce significant gains for the opposition.
In 1990, the fallout from the "Team A" and "Team B" split in Umno had an impact on the Felda vote bank. In 1999, following the sacking of Anwar from Umno a year earlier, state seats in Jengka, Chini and Penor were among those that fell into opposition hands.
It must be noted that Felda settlers are no political novices and have no qualms declaring their political allegiances.
The majority may still be with BN but a failure to counter the Pas and Parti Keadilan Rakyat onslaught could destabilise Felda's moderate centre.