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Window of opportunity for Najib in early polls

Scandal-hit Malaysian PM has upper hand now, but delaying polls beyond 2017 would be risky

The new electoral boundaries are out, the troops have been told to gear up for an early election, and once bitter rivals Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim were recently captured in an odd and awkward photo opp.

With each passing day, more signs are pointing to an early general election in Malaysia, one that Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition is bound to win. But it is a vote he must call within the next one year or the window of opportunity will slam shut.

Much has been written about Datuk Seri Najib having taken a severe reputational hit globally because of the financial debacles at state-owned 1 Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). But for him and his ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government, what matters will be Malaysia's roughly 13 million voters.

So far, the signals point to an election next year, possibly in the later half. For starters, the leadership of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the backbone of the BN coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, has set end-December as the deadline to finalise the list of candidates for the next general election, according to party insiders.

The candidate selection, which will be supervised by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi - Mr Najib's No. 2 in the party - is designed to give Umno's troopers a lead time to rally the party's politically dominant rural ethnic Malay voter base.

Umno strategists are betting that cash handouts and other financial assistance schemes to alleviate the impact of the sharp spikes in the cost of living will help endear the party's appeal with sections of the Malay community that in the two previous elections moved their support to the rural-based fundamentalist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and Parti Keadilan (Justice Party) headed by jailed politician Anwar.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (wearing a cap) at a rally for the 2013 general election. Although Mr Najib does not have to call for a national election until mid-2018, the signs point to an election in 2017, possibly in the later half.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (wearing a cap) at a rally for the 2013 general election. Although Mr Najib does not have to call for a national election until mid-2018, the signs point to an election in 2017, possibly in the later half. ST FILE PHOTO

The BN is counting on the feel-good factor from the many big infrastructure projects, like the proposed multi-billion-dollar high-speed rail project that will link Kuala Lumpur with Singapore. The full commissioning next year of KL's spanking new mass rail transit network could also soften the anti-government sentiment among voters fed-up with the city's poor public transport system.

To be sure, there is widespread despair with the BN and Mr Najib, whose personal popularity ratings remain below 30 per cent, according to several recent polls.

The recent proposal by the Election Commission over the redelineation of electoral constituencies nationwide that unashamedly benefits the BN has opened fresh debate about the uneven playing field in national elections and is expected to bring people to the streets in November, as the pro-democracy Bersih group rallies support.

But this anger is unlikely to be translated into votes in any major way because the opposition is fractured and there is deep voter discontent over the incessant politicking, particularly among the Chinese community.

The diehard among them will continue to vote for the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, a component of the opposition alliance. But there are signs that some segments of the Chinese community will swing back to the BN because of the push by the opposition Islamic party to impose punitive Islamic laws, or hudud, nationwide.

The growing sense of betrayal by PAS among the Chinese comes at a time when Mr Najib is assiduously wooing Beijing as a diplomatic ally and chief economic patron.

Since Mr Najib became Prime Minister in April 2009, Chinese state-controlled entities have secured multi-billion-dollar projects, such as the second bridge linking the mainland with Penang, the Murum Dam in Sarawak and a near stranglehold on the supply of rolling stock for the country's rail sector.

More recently, Beijing has stepped up to plug the debt burdens at 1MDB, with several Chinese state-owned corporations paying more than US$4 billion (S$5.4 billion) to acquire power plants and real estate projects. Mr Najib is also leaning heavily towards China in the government's high-speed rail project that will link Kuala Lumpur with Singapore.

Although Mr Najib does not have to call for a national election until mid-2018, he cannot be assured all the elements will remain in his favour for long.

The economic environment will be far more uncertain in 2018 and potential trouble spots, such as the country's overheated property sector and concerns over the high levels of household debt, could boil over and push the economy into a prolonged crisis.

Mr Najib also needs to secure a fresh mandate quickly to consolidate his hold on power after the severe mauling his political reputation has taken both at home and abroad over the 1MDB fiasco.

For the moment, the Premier's clout stems from the support of Umno's warlords because of his ability to keep the party's patronage machine humming.

But another major scandal or an international censure similar to the recent asset forfeiture action by the United States Department of Justice could force a rethink among the party's rank-and-file and cast Mr Najib as a liability to the party ahead of a general vote.

A key telltale sign that Malaysia is clearly in election mode will be how the Najib administration devises strategies to build a war chest to finance the polls.

Corporate restructurings and mergers and acquisitions involving government-linked entities and those with close ties to Umno are likely to pick up steam. There is also talk that Malaysia will embark on a multi-billion-dollar programme to boost its defence capabilities.

Funding issues asides, the most immediate challenge for the Premier will be in the selection of candidates to contest on the Umno ticket. Candidate selection is a frequent source of internal crisis in Umno, a phenomenon that underscores the party's patronage-driven brand of politics.

Unless managed carefully, senior Umno leaders acknowledge that the candidate selection process could bring to the open the simmering rivalry between the second echelon leaders.

There are growing tensions between the supporters of Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Zahid Hamidi, who is also Umno's deputy president, and the party's third-most senior leader, Mr Najib's cousin Hishamuddin Hussien, which could undermine party unity and expose Umno to internal sabotage during the polls.

Mr Najib's stranglehold over Umno has helped him stay in power throughout the 1MDB debacle. Putting a lid on dissent in the party ahead of the next general election will determine how long he stays in office.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2016, with the headline 'Window of opportunity for Najib in early polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe