Malaysia's opposition mulling over snap polls in Penang, a gamble that risks backfiring and aiding Najib

Participants posing for a photograph during the walk with Guan Eng event at the Lebuh Pantai.
Participants posing for a photograph during the walk with Guan Eng event at the Lebuh Pantai. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

GEORGETOWN (Bloomberg) - Malaysia's state of Penang, an opposition-led state, is mulling early elections for local seats even as a corruption scandal engulfs its chief minister - a high-stakes gamble that risks backfiring and boosting Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition.

The Democratic Action Party (DAP) is consulting with members of its alliance before deciding on when it will hold the vote in Penang, the state's chief minister and party secretary-general Lim Guan Eng told reporters on Wednesday (July 20). Leaders of the People's Justice Party, a coalition partner of the DAP, said they are not convinced of the need for an early vote.

"We will not make a unilateral decision, we will discuss it with our coalition partners," Lim said. "When you talk about making a decision together, it will naturally take some time. Of course, it cannot be forever."

Lim,who was charged last month with graft and abuse of power over property deals, has pleaded not guilty and is free on a RM1 million bond. He would not give a reason for wanting an early ballot.

Malaysia's opposition parties are already in disarray,having splintered amid policy differences in the aftermath of the last general election in 2013. With one leader in jail, and Lim facing charges that could potentially put him behind bars, it is becoming more challenging for the opposition to mount a coherent front against Datuk Seri Najib, who has weathered graft allegations of his own and efforts by a former leader to remove him.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat "is not saying 'no'" to the Penang polls, said deputy president Azmin Ali, chief minister of the opposition-led state of Selangor. "What we said is we are unconvinced of the objective of the state election."

Malaysians generally are experiencing political fatigue and this may translate to a poorer performance for the opposition in Penang should there be snap elections, said Mr Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a research center in Singapore.

"The point of calling for early elections is to show strong support," Mr Ooi said. "Lukewarm support will not do. Weakening support for the opposition will be demotivating for their supporters in the rest of the country."

Mr Najib has secured recent victories in local polls in Malaysia's biggest state of Sarawak on Borneo island in May and two federal by-elections last month. Leaders in his Umno party are watching his ability to shake off a year of political turmoil and focus on boosting a slowing economy.

With opposition parties holding three quarters of seats in the Penang assembly, the chances of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) regaining power in the state it lost control of in 2008 are low.

Still, racial and religious issues are widening the divide between opposition parties, and infighting has made it easier for BN to claim bigger majorities in recent elections. Should it gain votes in Penang - even it fails to win more seats - that could embolden Najib and his allies as they head toward general elections that must be held by mid-2018.

Two senior PKR officials told Bloomberg News the party is very reluctant to support the DAP election plan, with one official saying PKR risks losing further support from ethnic Malay voters. They asked not to be identified as their comments weren't in line with the party's public stance.

Lim became Penang's first chief minister from an opposition party in 36 years after winning in 2008. He is Malaysia's only ethnic-Chinese state leader. Penang, the country's second- smallest state, is one of its largest contributors to gross domestic product and home to foreign electronics companies including Intel Corp.

"Voters' support should not be taken for granted and there must be a public explanation from DAP to state their reasons for the state elections," the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections said in a statement on Tuesday. Any elections use public funds and "are time-consuming and frustrating when voters do not know what the election is for."

The DAP has 19 seats in the Penang assembly while PKR has 10. Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an opposition group that has fallen out with the DAP, has one seat, and the rest are held by BN.

"If DAP Penang decides to go head with the snap polls, it is no loss to BN," said Mr Fui K. Soong, a director at the Centre for Strategic Engagement in Kuala Lumpur.

"The Malay ground may not be happy with Umno but they are even more unhappy to be associated with DAP. PKR and PAS run into a high risk of losing a lot of the popular votes."