Run-Up to GE14: No telling what will happen at the polls

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 19, 2017 - June 25, 2017.
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There was great difficulty in getting people to talk to The Edge for this cover story. We sent questions to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s office in the belief that he would match anyone the opposition put forward but his executives politely rebuffed our request.

Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said no via WhatsApp while Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar declined after several attempts to contact him.

While we know that The Edge is a business publication and not part of mainstream media, we thought our cover story would give the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition an opportunity to show how it has fared as the incumbent government and how confident and equipped it is to face the next general election.

Some of the others who declined were former deputy prime minister Tun Musa Hitam, former minister of finance Tun Daim Zainuddin (who was travelling) and former minister of international trade and industry and Wanita Umno chief Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz (who said she did not want to talk about politics but asked us to look out for her blog postings).

On the other side of the divide, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the opposition leader in Dewan Rakyat, and Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali did not respond to requests to be interviewed. But Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president and director of election Nurul Izzah Anwar had a session with us.

Second Finance Minister Datuk Seri Johari Abdul Ghani gave us a quick interview over lunch, and his answers were short, factual and to the point.

None of those interviewed was sure when the election would be held, but then again, that is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.

Some quarters familiar with the government say Najib will call it in March next year, others say he may wait till the last possible date — Aug 24, 2018. But the majority are of the view that it will be around October this year — after the Southeast Asian Games, which is slated to be held between Aug 19 and 30 (see infographic).

With Malaysia likely to do well because of home ground advantage and our 60th Merdeka celebrations following closely behind, the feel-good factor could be brewing, which means a snap election could be called.

Two years ago, Singapore hosted the SEA Games and the government rallied its people after coming in second — their best-ever performance in the Games’ history — and went to the ballot box. The Games ended in mid-June and the election was called three months later in mid-September.

The ruling People’s Action Party did its best since 2001 with 69.86% of the popular vote — up 9.72% from the 2011 election.

However, in Malaysia, there are many other issues, one of which is the presence of former prime minister and Najib’s harshest critic, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, as part of the opposition.

The Mahathir factor

Seeing Mahathir on the same stage as DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang must have come as a shock to many Malaysians, what more his handshake with his political nemesis Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Mahathir even signed a petition to free Anwar from jail at the PKR national congress last month, which is ironic, considering that Anwar was jailed for sodomy the first time round — which many believed was a trumped-up charge — when Mahathir was the prime minister.

Former finance minister and a political adversary of Mahathir, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, or Ku Li as he is better known, tells The Edge, “Well, Mahathir can do anything, you know. He can somersault and he can jump … [and] he’ll do it even if he’s 150 [years old]. He’s a political animal.”

Nevertheless, some political observers feel that Mahathir, who ruled the country for 22 years, could be a game changer for Pakatan Harapan (PH) and could open doors for the opposition to get into the Malay heartland, notably the FELDA settlements — Umno strongholds — that comprise the majority of over 54 constituencies.

But did Mahathir do the right thing by joining the opposition? One seasoned businessman says Mahathir made a mistake in partnering DAP and the rest of the opposition. He believes the former premier should have done a deal with PAS, which would not have divided the Malays. “I believe many Malays are united against Mahathir … seeing him on stage with old foe Kit Siang was the last straw. I, for one, have lost all respect for Mahathir.”

But some political observers feel that many Malays in the urban, semi-urban and even rural areas might think twice about voting for Umno this time round because Mahathir is still well regarded and respected as a leader of the Malays and who has done a lot for the community and Islam.

The opposition’s equation

DAP national political education director Liew Chin Tong says the decision by Mahathir’s new party — Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) — to become a part of PH or an opposition coalition without PAS is the right one.

He says the main battle will be for Peninsular Malaysia because both Sabah and Sarawak — which want more autonomy as evident in their recent demand for English-medium schools, their opposition to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 (RUU355), Sarawak’s withdrawal from the Malaysia Tourism Board because of the tourism tax, issues of higher oil royalty and the setting up of state oil corporations — will swing with whoever gets the majority in the peninsula. In short, they are neither fixed deposits for the BN nor do they want to be dictated to by Umno and could become the kingmakers.

Umno won 88 seats in total in 2013 — 73 of them in the peninsula. Of the 73 seats, Umno is guaranteed 30, including in areas like Pekan, Mersing, Pengerang and Rompin.

Liew and his fellow PH election analysts believe about 43 seats are still up for grabs. Liew says in these constituencies, 60% to 70% of the voters are Malays, although many of them have at least 30% non-Malay voters. “In these areas, if you don’t win the non-Malay votes, and let’s say the Malay votes are split 50:50, you will still lose. But if you secure a high percentage of the non-Malay votes and the Malays are split equally [even if there is a three-cornered fight between Umno, PAS and Bersatu/Amanah/PKR], then you have a chance to win.”

Najib shows his strengths but still overall popularity drops

At the Umno general assembly in December last year, Najib, in a fiery speech to 2,729 delegates, labelled Mahathir’s decision to quit Umno and set up PPBM as the ultimate betrayal of the party, the race and the country. One delegate says Najib’s speech gave him goose pimples.

The prime minister has also been generous. Recently, during a visit to FELDA Sayong in Johor, he announced a cash incentive of RM500 for each FELDA settler’s family and an additional RM280 from Felda Global Ventures Holdings Bhd (FGV).

This was over and above the quarterly 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M) 2017, the second payment of which was made on June 5. Najib also announced this month the government’s plan to offer free digital television decoders to 4.2 million BR1M recipients in Malaysia in phases until the end of next year. The decoders are worth RM199 each.

Nevertheless, Najib’s popularity has taken a turn for the worse. The going has been tough, largely as a result of the many issues plaguing the country, such as the lack of transparency and losses at 1Malaysia Development Bhd, the poor performance, management and perceived leakages at FGV, which could have an impact on FELDA settlements and the rising cost of living partly brought about by the removal of subsidies and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax.

In October 2015, Najib’s government lost the approval of the majority of Malay voters for the first time; news reports citing a Merdeka Center survey said only 31% of Malay voters were satisfied with the government. In January 2015, Malay voters’ approval of the government stood at 52%. Now, the government’s overall approval rating is down to a mere 23%. By comparison, when the 13th general election was held in May 2013, the government’s approval rating was 43%.

Granted, the BN and Najib face many problems but the opposition is in no better shape. 

And despite a tough fight from the opposition, Najib still led BN to victory in the last general election.

“At the risk of sounding patronising, at this moment, in my opinion, there is no likelihood of the opposition being able to offer any alternative as they lack ‘cohesiveness’ compared with BN. Furthermore, I cannot see the opposition parties reaching a consensus on who should be their candidate for prime minister before GE14,” says Second Finance Minister Johari.

Opposition’s woes

While the opposition seems shaky on all fronts, Mahathir, in an exclusive interview with The Edge, warns, “Yes, it looks pretty shaky but believe me, it’s not as shaky as made out to be.”

But there seem to be many issues that the opposition has to deal with.

The deaths of former Kelantan menteri besar and PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat or Tok Guru in February 2015 and Bukit Gelugor MP and former DAP national chairman Karpal Singh in April 2014 had an adverse effect on the coalition, while the jailing of Anwar for sodomy for the second time was an even bigger blow.

Political observers believe that if Tok Guru had not died, PAS would not have pulled out of the opposition coalition. The party’s decision to leave the opposition coalition  revolved around RUU355, a private member’s bill tabled by Marang MP and PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang. Though not firmed up yet, Umno has courted PAS by sending the Islamist party signals that it would support RUU355, which aims to increase the power of the shariah courts.

But without the support of Sarawak and Sabah BN, it is unlikely that Umno will support the bill. This issue and the pulling out of the opposition coalition have caused a lot of dissatisfaction among the PAS grassroots, especially those in the urban areas who think Umno is taking the party and Hadi for a ride. PAS itself seems to be split into three factions despite the “progressive” group having left the party to form Parti Amanah Negara and join forces with PH.

As at end-April, PAS deputy president Datuk Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man had made clear that his party would not work with DAP and Amanah, and would not consider a coalition state government with opposition members. PAS says it will go it alone in the next election but Hadi’s closeness with Umno’s top leaders seems to indicate that there may be some cooperation between the two parties.

But then again, Hadi had a valve replacement surgery in May and may be out of action for as long as six months. 

Another issue for the opposition is Penang Chief Minister and DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng’s ongoing corruption case, which could end in jail time. It is also known that opposition leader Wan Azizah does not get along with Selangor Menteri Besar Azmin.

So, against this backdrop — a BN that is not strong, a weak opposition, a possible three-cornered fight that will split the Malay votes further and a Sarawak and Sabah that want more autonomy — it is anybody’s guess what will happen in GE14.