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News analysis

Plan for Penang snap polls strains fragile opposition pact

DAP leader Lim Guan Eng faces tough job convincing PKR; analysts see gambit as risky

Leslie Lopez

A plan by Malaysia's Democratic Action Party (DAP) to call early polls in Penang state is spotlighting deep strains in the already fragile opposition alliance and could provide an unlikely fillip for Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Embattled Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who is also DAP's secretary-general, was hoping to seek permission from the Penang governor to dissolve the state assembly as early as tomorrow, party sources say.

But those plans are on hold because the opposition party is facing an uphill battle convincing its counterparts from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) to support the early vote.

Mr Lim told reporters that more time for consultation on the plan was needed to call snap polls.

"There will be no unilateral decision on this," he said after holding emergency talks with PKR deputy president Azmin Ali, who is also the Selangor Menteri Besar.

The DAP has 19 seats in the state assembly and PKR has 10 in the 40-seat House.

Umno-led Barisan Nasional controls another 10 seats, and the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), one seat.

Mr Lim's decision to visit Governor Abdul Rahman Abbas for an hour later yesterday afternoon served to heat up speculation about the dissolution of the assembly, but he denied he was there to seek the House's dissolution.

PKR sources say that jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who appeared for court hearings in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, advised two DAP representatives dispatched to meet him that the snap polls carry many risks and should be pursued only if the party could get the full backing of PKR leaders.

"We are not convinced that a snap election is a good move. That is pretty much the consensus (in PKR)," said a senior PKR leader involved in the negotiations, who requested anonymity.

The developments in Penang, one of the three opposition-led state governments in Malaysia, are being watched closely because of the repercussions they could have on the opposition alliance. BN for the first time lost the popular vote to the opposition in the 2013 elections.

But while public sentiment against the BN has not improved very much on the back of the corruption scandals surrounding state-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad, voter fatigue has set in with the opposition because of public quarrelling and the breakaway of Islamic fundamentalist PAS from the opposition pact.

The plan to hold the early polls comes on the heel of the troubles confronting Mr Lim. He is facing corruption charges for abusing his office in a land-rezoning award, and for buying a house below market price from a businesswoman.

The general view is that DAP's early vote plan will represent an endorsement of Mr Lim's leadership of Penang in the face of these charges, and also show public approval for the state government's mega-infrastructure plans for highways and land reclamation that have drawn public attacks.

Most analysts agree that the early poll gambit carries many risks and could do serious damage to the troubled opposition alliance.

While prevailing public sentiment will help the DAP retain control of its 19 Chinese-dominated constituencies, the prospect for PKR, whose representatives occupy Malay-dominated constituencies, could be risky.

This is because three-cornered fights against PAS and Umno candidates could result in losses in three or four seats that PKR had earlier won marginally.

Analysts and politicians also see parallels between DAP's latest gambit and PKR's disastrous so-called "Kajang Move" two years ago when the party embarked on a campaign to replace then Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim.

The plan caused deep rifts within the opposition coalition and sowed the seeds for the eventual breakaway of PAS.

A senior DAP official, who asked not to be named, acknowledged that the party was facing problems convincing PKR of its plans for early polls. "This (snap election) may not happen, but our stand is that we need it to deal with the political crisis," he said.

Independent observers are not convinced. Said Mr Ibrahim Suffian of Malaysia's leading opinion research firm Merdeka Centre: "Rather than go to the polls, DAP should engage a prominent university to carry out a public survey and get public reaction to the many issues.

"This is so abrupt and lacks any strong motivation at a time when voters are so tired of politics."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2016, with the headline 'Plan for Penang snap polls strains fragile opposition pact'. Print Edition | Subscribe