Malaysians have a new favourite pastime these days – guessing when Prime Minister Najib Razak will call the next general election. The vote is due by next August but for months the premier, who has full power to decide when it will be held, has blown hot and cold about triggering a snap contest.
When called, the vote will be one of the country’s fiercest ever political battles, pitting Najib against Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s 92-year-old former strongman prime minister who today leads the opposition. It will also serve as a referendum of sorts on Najib’s handing of the multibillion dollar corruption scandal at the state fund 1MDB – the main factor that led Mahathir to cross the aisle and take on his protégé.
Amid high political tension, speculation over whether Najib would call an election went into overdrive last Sunday, when he convened a last minute press conference.
Alas, it was a false alarm: Najib – leader of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition – was announcing the return of Mohammad Taib, a senior politician who had defected to the opposition years earlier.
Since late last year, the premier has revelled in gleefully teasing the public and the opposition over when he might call the election. He showcased this approach when journalists earlier this month suggested the timing was right for a snap poll. He retorted: “Is that so? Hold on lah ... I might get a brainwave, inshallah.”
Political observers meanwhile are confident polls will be held in March or April. They cite economic factors, bad weather and school examinations at the end of the year, and the expected release in April of Anwar Ibrahim, Najib’s jailed arch enemy, as signs of a poll in the narrow two-month period. Here’s why these factors makes sense.
BASKING IN THE ECONOMY
Malaysian politics observer Ahmad Martadha Mohamed said polls in November or December were unlikely because the economic sweeteners expected in Najib’s October 27 budget would only come into effect next year.
Najib, also the country’s finance minister, is expected to target rural Malays, government employees and young people with his election goodies.
“But the civil servant bonuses and such won’t come through until at least January. So that’s one reason he [Najib] won’t call elections until at least February,” said Ahmad, from the Northern University of Malaysia.
The prime minister will also hope to bask in the positive economic data expected in February. Among them: fourth quarter GDP figures and the full-year dividend of the national pension fund. The economy grew at its fastest pace in more than two years in the second quarter of this year.
Elsewhere, there is speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping might make an official visit to Malaysia in November, after the conclusion of the Communist Party’s key congress in October.
That potentially could mean announcements of further multibillion dollar infrastructure investments from Beijing – a vote winner for Najib, according to some observers. But it also buttresses the theory that elections are unlikely by the end of the year.
BAD WEATHER, EXAM FEVER, PARTY MEETING
Another key factor ruling out elections at the end of the year, observers say, is the northeastern monsoon season that comes about at that time. The phenomenon routinely causes severe flooding in peninsula Malaysia’s east coast, rendering campaigning and polling in the area untenable.
Meanwhile, the grade 11 examination for the Malaysian Certificate of Education will be held from November 6 to December 4, and the grade 12 pre-university examination will be held between November 6 and November 28, according to the latest official schedule. Schools are used as polling stations in Malaysian elections and having the vote during the exam period would be disruptive.
Elsewhere, Najib has said his United Malay National Organisation – the lynchpin of the BN coalition – will hold its annual general assembly from December 5 to 9. But the premier left the door open for a December election with a caveat that the party assembly would be postponed if he decided to hold the national vote at the same time.
NEW YEAR VIBES
Opposition lawmaker Zairil Khir Johari said Najib would also be hoping to lap up the feel-good factor in the financial markets during the Lunar New Year. The first day of the new year falls on February 16, while Chap Goh Meh – which marks the end of the festival – falls on March 2. Ahmad from the Northern University said BN leaders would be seeking to use the Lunar New Year festivities to reach out to ethnic Chinese voters, “who can make or break this election”.
In the last two general elections, support from the minority Chinese population swung to the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) instead of the BN coalition’s Malaysian Chinese Association.
THE ANWAR IBRAHIM FACTOR
“If I were the government, I would not want him running around,” Zairil said of Anwar Ibrahim, the country’s jailed opposition icon. The 70-year-old may be eligible for early release in April or May. Najib is likely to ensure the polls are held before that happens. While Anwar will be disqualified from the elections, his charisma and oratory prowess will be a shot in the arm for the opposition. Anwar is serving a five-year jail term for sodomy, an outcome he says is a result of trumped up charges by Najib to keep him off the political front lines.
Internationally acclaimed as a pro-democracy champion, Anwar has pledged to work with his former rival Mahathir to remove Najib from power, citing the 1MDB scandal as evidence that the premier is overseeing a “kleptocracy”. ■