KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS, THE STAR /ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has said that he will "not necessarily" call a snap election next year, amid talk that he would seek an early vote as splits in the opposition have hobbled efforts to oust him over a long-running financial scandal.
Malaysia is due to hold an election by August 2018, and a government official has told Reuters that Mr Najib could call for a poll in the second half of 2017.
But in a wide-ranging interview published in The Star daily on Sunday (Nov 27), Mr Najib, who has led the country since 2009, suggested he was in no hurry to call for a vote, and remarked on the current lack of a "feel good factor" among Malaysians.
"Not necessarily... it can be later," Mr Najib replied when asked whether an election could be called sometime next year. "With today's economic situation, it's going to be a challenge because you don't see the world economy on a rising trend. It's going to be much more the same next year, as the year before," Mr Najib said.
Mr Najib has been battling calls to step down over a scandal involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund.
The US Justice Department filed lawsuits in July alleging misappropriation of over US$3.5 billion (S$5 billion) from the fund and that some of those flowed into the accounts of "Malaysian Official 1", whom US and Malaysian officials have identified as Mr Najib.
Mr Najib has denied wrongdoing and has consolidated power by sacking critics within his ruling party and cracking down on dissent.
His fiercest critic is former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who is over 90 years old. Mr Mahathir has joined hands with Mr Najib's sacked former deputy Muhyiddin Yassin to form a new party. But the main Islamist party's failure to join efforts by other opposition parties campaigning against Mr Najib, has made it hard for them to whip up more support among ethnic Malays.
Anwar Ibrahim, the most charismatic opposition leader, is serving a five-year sentence on sodomy charges that supporters and some observers believe were politically motivated.
Touching on the preparations for the next vote, Mr Najib said the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition would use a new and tough vetting system to select candidates for the 14th general election, although he did not provide details on what it entailed.
Mr Najib said the new methodology had passed the test in the Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar by-elections where the BN won with thumping majorities. The system was also tested in the Sarawak state election in May.
Mr Najib said although the vetting system had been tested largely on Umno, the same principle will be applied to component parties in the coalition.
“If you don’t meet the minimum criteria, you will not even be considered, period. That makes it easier for me as president of the party. If they didn’t pass, it is not because of me but because of merit," he said. “There is nothing I can do, they have to accept the fact that they lost,” he added.
On the economic front, Mr Najib said he expected some recovery in oil and gas revenues to help the national mood. "After that I think that the price of oil will likely be at a slightly higher level, not at the all time high, but something between US$60 to US$70 per barrel, will be a comfortable level for us," he said.
The Malaysian economy has been hit hard by the slide in oil prices. A recent slump in the ringgit currency to a near 14-month low has also raised concerns.
In the interview with The Star, Mr Najib also said a free trade deal for the Asia Pacific region was important to create jobs, investment and wealth.
US President-elect Donald Trump has said he would withdraw the United States from the multi-country Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which excludes China.
And Mr Najib said if the TPP is a non-starter, he would hope that agreement can be reached on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a China-backed trade deal which excludes the United States. "If the TPP is a no-go, then RCEP must be brought to a conclusion, the earlier the better and I think realistically we are talking about the end of 2017," Mr Najib said.