Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is a tease. With just over 100 days before his government’s five-year term ends, only he seems to hold the answer to the date of the general election.
In parliament this week – the legislature’s last meeting before the June 24 deadline – the premier displayed his trademark coyness over the timing of the vote. Walking past a gaggle of journalists, he drew hoots of faux exasperation when he stopped in his tracks, his face breaking into a wide grin, and asked aloud: “When’s the election? What am I announcing today?”
With the coming polls seen as the toughest the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition has faced in decades, observers say it is no surprise that Najib is holding his cards close to his chest.
Malaysia’s constitution grants the prime minister discretion to call elections any time during a parliamentary term, with the assent of the country’s constitutional monarch.
The current parliament sitting lasts until April 5, and government and opposition insiders say parliament is likely to be dissolved soon after that date.
That would mean the actual vote could be held in late April, or in early May – before the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan on May 16.
But the actual polling day notwithstanding, sitting MPs and political observers say major curveballs ahead of the campaigning period are unlikely.
After all, most of the fireworks went off months ago. Najib’s government and the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition have been in ‘election mode’ for nearly 18 months now – an outcome of Najib’s reluctance to call the vote. Whether it is a delaying tactic to wear down the opposition or trite indecision to find the most opportune time to summon the will of the people is anyone’s guess.
The biggest bombshell to drop so far was news of the defection last year of Najib’s 92-year-old former mentor Mahathir Mohamad to Pakatan Harapan, in protest against the premier’s alleged involvement in the wide-ranging scandal at the 1MDB state fund.
That was followed by Mahathir’s reconciliation and alliance with another protégé-turned-rival, the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
If Mahathir’s defection from Barisan Nasional was not stunning enough, the rapprochement with Anwar certainly was.
Anwar Ibrahim was deputy prime minister when Mahathir unceremoniously sacked him in 1998. The one-time student activist was then jailed for sodomy and corruption – charges he claimed were manufactured by his former boss who had grown wary of his national influence. Anwar, a skilled orator popular among urban Malays, was at the helm of the opposition soon after his release in 2004 until he was jailed again in 2015 for a second time – again on a sodomy charge.
This time he blamed Najib for engineering the charges to keep him out of active politics.
With their de facto leader Anwar in cold storage, Pakatan Harapan insiders are banking on the “Mahathir factor” to win crucial votes from the majority Malays.
Both sides are likely to do battle over three other issues: the economy, the support of ethnic Chinese voters and the future of two semi-autonomous Malaysian states in Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak.
The vote will be as much a watershed moment for Najib as it is for Malaysia.
In power since 2009, this year’s general election is the 64-year-old’s second as commander-in-chief of Barisan Nasional. During his first outing at the helm in 2013, Barisan Nasional failed to staunch the tide of the 2008 tsunami when it lost its two-thirds majority in the national legislature, recording its worst-ever performance with just 47 per cent of the popular vote. The coalition lost seats in urban centres including Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru in the south as well as in Penang. Ethnic Chinese voters, who first defected from Barisan Nasional in 2008, consolidated their support for the opposition in 2013. The only saving grace for the ruling party was reeling back the Kedah state into its column, controlling 10 out of the 13 states. In 2008, it lost five states to the opposition but regained one soon after.
Barisan Nasional is made up of its linchpin party the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), as well as 11 other smaller parties.
The main wild card confronting Najib is his head-to-head battle with the country’s most seasoned political animal, Mahathir.
The nonagenarian was a protégé of his father Abdul Razak, the country’ second prime minister. Mahathir, disillusioned with his successor Abdullah Badawi, lobbied strenuously for Najib’s ascension to the premiership in 2009.
Campaigning in Najib’s rural ward in the state of Pahang a fortnight ago, Mahathir reiterated his sense of remorse and regret.
“The son of Razak is not exactly like his father … [For Najib] cash is king, money can buy everything,” Mahathir was quoted as saying.
“The father is unlike him. He worked hard until his early demise.”
The popularity of Mahathir in rural areas will push Barisan Nasional strategists to tread warily and sidestep direct attacks on the former strongman prime minister at the hustings, say observers.
Instead, University Malaya political science professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi said Najib would make “enhancing the economy” the centrepiece of his election platform.
Merideth Weiss, a Malaysian politics specialist at the University of Albany in the United States, said Najib’s campaign was likely to have two messages: a focus on the economy and growth, and a reassurance to the majority Malays that their special rights would not be eroded.
Ethnic Malays and tribes people – known as bumiputera (sons of the soil) – in Borneo enjoy special rights in education and business as part of the country’s decades-old affirmative action policy to bridge a wealth gap with the wealthier Chinese community.
Bumiputera citizens make up about 60 per cent of the country’s 32 million people.
Since the release of a bumper election budget last October, Najib has criss-crossed the country to press his case as the most able steward of Southeast Asia’s third largest economy.
At the height of the 1MDB scandal in 2015, few would have expected the premier to campaign three years down the road from such a position of strength – let alone as a competent economic tsar.
At the time, the multibillion dollar heavy losses at the property and energy fund had routed investor confidence and the value of the Malaysian ringgit.
Najib – the architect of the fund – was forced to deny charges that he plundered hundreds of millions of dollars from it for personal gain. He continues to maintain his innocence, and says the nearly US$700 million found in his personal account were donations to Barisan Nasional from the Saudi royal family – not diverted funds from 1MDB as alleged by The Wall Street Journal.
The US Department of Justice in 2016 launched a civil suit against 1MDB, decrying its losses as “kleptocracy at its worst”.
In a business conference in January, Najib for the first time admitted “lapses of governance” at the fund but lauded the country’s economic recovery in the aftermath of the scandal.
And last month, he chided Mahathir and others in the opposition for claiming that the country was bankrupt as a result of the 1MDB losses.
Said Najib: “If we were bankrupt, why would all the rating agencies rank us so highly?”
The International Monetary Fund this week boosted his case in a special report on the country.
The Washington-based body said its US$296 billion economy showed “resilience” in the midst of external shocks, and was “well on its to way achieving high-income status”.
Wong Chen, one of the architects of the opposition’s economic manifesto, said the bloc relished a fight for hearts and minds on the basis of the economy.
Wong and others in Pakatan Harapan are confident of demolishing Najib’s glowing narrative about the economy on the campaign trail. Their argument is stark: voters are not feeling the impact of stellar growth because of the surging cost of living.
GDP growth of 5.9 per cent in 2017 was powered by a staggering 18.9 per cent year-on-year growth in total exports. But online, many Malaysians grumble that the robust headline figures are hardly having a rosy impact on their daily lives.
Sticky wages, the roll-out of a six per cent goods and services tax (GST) in 2015, and the Malaysian ringgit’s nearly 20 per cent depreciation against the US dollar since 2014 are key reasons fuelling anxieties and unhappiness on the ground.
“It’s going to be an election about the economy anyway … economic voters [who make up] about 25 per cent of the total voting population will decide this election,” Wong told This Week in Asia in an interview in Kuala Lumpur. “You saw in the lead-up to the Lunar New Year in the retail stores, no buzz, nothing is happening. The mood on the ground does not correlate with the economic numbers,” Wong said.
In parliament this week, the government’s attempts to play down cost-of-living concerns left many fuming online. Johari Abdul Ghani, the second finance minister, attributed less-than-stellar retail sales to cannibalisation in the sector. He also pointed to an increase in Malaysians’ overseas spending as a good sign.
Barisan Nasional MP Bung Moktar Radin meanwhile argued that the country’s high obesity rate – it is ranked Asia’s fattest country – was testament to the country’s prosperity.
The ruling coalition “must have a better strategy if it wants to use the economy as campaign fodder,” said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, an analyst with the BowerGroupAsia political risk consultancy in Kuala Lumpur.
Another key facet of campaigning is likely to be the status of the semi-autonomous provinces of Sabah and Sarawak. The two provinces account for a quarter of the 222 seats in parliament.
In Sabah, the tourism haven home to some of the world’s best beaches, Najib is facing a headache borne out of the 1MDB scandal.
At the height of the saga in 2015 he sacked Shafie Apdal, a Sabah native, from cabinet over the then rural and regional development minister’s dissenting views on the way the government was handling the scandal.
The 60-year-old Shafie in 2016 went on to form a new party called the Parti Warisan Sabah, or the Sabah Heritage Party.
That outfit is now threatening to upend Barisan Nasional’s stranglehold on the state.
“Sabah may be a major battlefield where Barisan Nasional may lose up to 10 more seats,” says Liew Chin Tong, an opposition MP and one of the bloc’s election strategists.
Also at stake are the terms of autonomy for the two states. Politicians in Sabah and Sarawak have long complained that the federal government has gradually eroded the states’ special autonomous status enshrined in their merger agreement with the rest of Malaysia in 1963. The two territories were British colonies before that.
This week, the state government in Sarawak – controlled by Barisan Nasional – said it had regained full regulatory authority over its oil and gas sector.
Some view it as a pre-emptive carrot by Najib to retain the state as a political “fixed deposit”, but political analyst Oh Ei Sun believes there is little chance of a rebellion anyway.
“The key is delivery of tremendous resources to the backward and inaccessible interior,” said Oh, a Sabah native and senior adviser for the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute think tank.
“As long as Barisan Nasional can continue to deliver that, Sarawak will still be a fixed deposit.”
THE CHINESE VOTE
As with previous elections, there is likely to be a fierce battle to woo Chinese voters, who make up about 23.2 per cent of Malaysia’s total population.
In the aftermath of the 2013 vote, the minority community faced a backlash for backing the opposition. In the late-night press conference after results were announced, Najib blamed his coalition’s weak showing on a “Chinese tsunami”.
Mahathir, then still a Najib ally, said the ethnic group was “ungrateful”.
The post-election day headline on Utusan Malaysia, the mouthpiece of UMNO, demanded to know: “What else do the Chinese want?”
Fast forward five years, and the ruling coalition has changed tack.
At MCA’s annual conference in November, Najib implored the Chinese community to support Barisan Nasional instead of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), which gained the most from the 2008 and 2013 Chinese swing.
MCA used to be a major player, but after the bashing in 2008 and 2013, it now holds only seven seats. Its losses were the gains of the DAP – the biggest constituent party in Pakatan Harapan with 38 seats currently. “Please give us the support because you can’t have everything your way. It doesn’t make sense. You always complain we give a lot to the Malays but it’s because they support us,” Najib said at the MCA conference.
That tough message has accompanied several sweeteners, including the announcement of 10 new Chinese-medium schools in the states of Selangor and Johor, where the Chinese population is above the national average.
Also being used by Najib as campaign fodder are a slew of problems in the DAP stronghold of Penang.
Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is facing a corruption trial, and the Barisan Nasional has been incessant in finding fault with his administration.
The opposition is not without new cards up its sleeves. Without the financial war chest that comes with federal incumbency, Pakatan Harapan is employing modern day guerilla techniques in electioneering – including the use of data analytics to pinpoint winnable parliamentary seats.
Najib’s recent courtship of the hardline Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) meanwhile is also being used as a Chinese vote puller, observers say. It was booted from the opposition coalition over its insistence on imposing a stricter form of sharia law on the country’s Muslim population. Weiss, the US professor, said if PAS formed an electoral pact with Najib, “I would not only expect the Barisan Nasional’s non Malay peninsular votes not to increase, but Sabah and Sarawak would be much more in play”.
WHAT NEXT, MALAYSIA?
No matter the outcome, there is a degree of uncertainty that will accompany Malaysia’s 14th general election as an independent nation. Before the current parliament session ends, the government may push through new election boundaries. Pakatan Harapan says some of the mooted changes favour the incumbent government. Barisan Nasional currently holds 132 seats. PAS has 13 seats, while Pakatan Harapan holds 72 seats. Shafie Apdal’s Warisan holds two seats.
A Pakatan Harapan victory – unlikely according to neutral pollsters – would not immediately precipitate the new dawn that the bloc’s leaders have touted in recent months. Unveiling its manifesto late on Thursday, the coalition promised to enact a slew of populist measures if handed power: abolition of the GST, toll reduction, and an increase in royalties to oil-producing states like Sabah and Sarawak.
But victory would come with the re-instatement of Mahathir to the apex of politics.
The leader, once assailed by the DAP for entrenching cronyism, bypassing the rule of law, and outright corruption, says he will cede power to Anwar within two years. Their fraught history means few believe the transition will be smooth sailing.
Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar told This Week in Asia her father – due for release on June 8 – was “an incorrigible optimist” who believes his stunning reconciliation with Mahathir is in the national interest.
There are question marks about a Barisan Nasional victory too. Mahathir on Thursday raised the spectre of a “dictatorship” if the premier wins a landslide at the polls.
“If [Najib] gets a two-thirds majority, he will change the laws,” Mahathir warned at the unveiling of the Pakatan Harapan manifesto.
In politics since the age of 23, the premier does not have a clear successor.
His 65-year-old deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is a year older than him, while other lieutenants are viewed as lacking the national clout to helm Barisan Nasional.
For now, Najib in his public appearances has been projecting a picture of confidence, teasing journalists, as if saying: “What, me worry?”
Malaysians will decide soon enough if he should. ■