Malaysian election this year or next: Guessing game goes on

KUALA LUMPUR • Reporters at The Star daily in Malaysia had been told to try and clear their leave in the first half of the year.

The editors were expecting the 14th general election to be called towards the second half of the year and all leave on the editorial floor would be frozen if this happened.

May and June, reporters were told, were the "safest" months to go on leave because it was unlikely that Prime Minister Razak Najib would be contemplating calling the polls during Ramadan, or the following Syawal period.

Although the parliamentary term is due to expire only in August next year, analysts have been predicting that Datuk Seri Najib would want to cement his hold on power with an early election, given the ringgit's strong pole position among Asian currencies this quarter plus the 5.6 per cent growth rate year on year.

The guessing game has been going on since last year, with some even speculating that Mr Najib would go for a snap election after returning from a China state visit in May. September or October are the two months when the general election is most likely to take place - or at least that is what most people think.

The popular assumption earlier on was that Mr Najib would want to ride on national sentiments arising from the SEA Games next month and the grand celebrations being planned for National Day and Malaysia Day. Then, more recently, word trickled out that China's President Xi Jinping may be visiting Malaysia in October. That sort of pushed the possibility for the election even further towards the end of the year, narrowing the window of opportunity.

But the word coming from the Barisan Nasional end is that the general election is more likely to be next year than this year.

"My guess is after Chinese New Year. It looks like the boss is going the distance," said Kapar Umno division chief Faizal Abdullah.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife at the ruling Umno's 71st anniversary celebrations this year.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife at the ruling Umno's 71st anniversary celebrations this year. PHOTO: NEW STRAITS TIMES PRESS

Each time Mr Najib speaks at a political function, it seems like the election is going to happen soon. The aim is to keep everyone in a state of preparedness. During the Umno anniversary gathering, Mr Najib had said the election could be anytime, adding in jest that "I may even call it tomorrow".

Gerakan politician Ivanpal S. Grewal said: "Everyone is trying to read the tea leaves but the thing is the PM will decide when he feels the time is right."

Mr Najib has turned out to be quite impossible to second-guess.

Will he be repeating the mistake he made in the 13th general election that almost derailed his political career? His approval ratings had been positive in 2012 but he had held off calling for the election until May 2013, by which time his popularity had dipped.

Timing is important in politics and the conventional wisdom is that waiting till too close to the dissolution of Parliament is dicey because "anything can happen".

"We are living in an uncertain world. There may be surprises ahead, it may not be a good idea to prolong the date," said political commentator Khaw Veon Szu.

But a political consultant to a Cabinet minister said: "Get real, what do you expect to happen in the next 12 months that has not already happened? Nothing shocks me any more, whether here, the Middle East, America or Europe."

According to one minister, the economic signs are getting better but oil prices are still uncertain and there is no guarantee it will firm up to US$60 next year.

"We have to accept that it will continue to be depressed in the foreseeable future. Politically, the 1MDB issue is flaring up again but everyone has heard the arguments from both sides. These issues have been factored in," said the minister.

According to the same minister, Prime Minister Najib still has the opportunity to call for the election this year.

"There are signs of this. He has asked our election machinery to be in full throttle. The PM and DPM have been meeting key state leaders over the last few months.

"Problematic divisions have been in discussion with the PM and DPM. Those yet to do so are scheduled to see the PM and DPM after the Raya period," said the same minister.

The point he is making is that the Barisan election preparation has gone down to that level of discussing seats and potential candidates while the Pakatan Harapan coalition is still haggling over the prime minister post and who should be at the top of the coalition hierarchy.

One of the more convincing arguments why Mr Najib might prefer to wait till next year is that he is likely to table a sweetheart budget in October and it takes a few months, possibly by February, for the honey to reach the ground.

Going in too early comes with its own perils, given what happened in Britain when prime minister David Cameron called for a referendum on the European Union just months after a general election - and quit after the shock result. Now, a snap general election has Prime Minister Theresa May hanging on by a thread. The world has not been this uncertain since Sept 11, 2001. The Arab Spring became the unlikely springboard to a chain of events that sparked off a war and led to the birth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Terrorism has become a clear and present danger and it has become what Mr Khaw calls the "new normal". In that sense, GE14 will be taking place amid great uncertainty, even turmoil, in the world around us.

"It is an open, borderless world, the lesson that voters should take to the ballot booth is that Malaysia cannot afford instability. We are not used to it," said Mr Ivanpal.

On the Pakatan side, the aim is to save Malaysia and introduce reform and change. The problem is that the person now leading the coalition is a 92-year-old man once blamed by the opposition parties for everything that was wrong with the country.

And that is why GE14 will be beyond interesting. Will voters go for the side that has been portrayed as corrupt and having been around too long? Or will they settle for the side that is unable to get its act together and is starting to resemble a coalition of chaos?

What is clear, though, is that GE14 will be a battle for the Malay ground. Religion and race will be key issues as will nationalism versus foreign intervention.

"Malays are still quite an emotional race. They also want change but the change must be within the scope of Malay-Muslim domination. That will be the clinching point," said the political consultant.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2017, with the headline Malaysian election this year or next: Guessing game goes on. Subscribe