Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Najib’s election dilemma — Bridget Welsh

Najib’s election dilemma — Bridget Welsh

September 04, 2012
Malaysian Insider-Side Views
 
SEPT 4 — When will Malaysia’s 13th general election (GE) be held?

Pundits continue to speculate on the election timing, with views ranging from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak making a surprise announcement to speculation that he will go the full term.

One thing is certain: the polls have to be held before the end of June next year. The person who appears most reluctant to hold the polls is Najib himself. He is now Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister without his own electoral mandate — either from his own party, Umno, that has not held elections since 2008 — or from Malaysians.

The pressure to call the polls and deliver a comfortable majority remains intense. Najib’s predecessor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, was forced to resign when he failed to win two-thirds of the parliamentary seats in the 2008 GE.

Based on fieldwork and polling, of the 222 seats up for grabs, 84 per cent of them are “competitive” — and with the Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition having about the same number of “safe seats”.

It is thus not surprising that Najib has repeatedly delayed facing the electorate. Multiple windows for the GE have been by-passed. Instead, Najib has worked diligently to earn popular support with the aim of tying his personal popularity to a victory for his ruling coalition.

DIMINISHING RETURNS

His clock is ticking, as there is less than a year left before the GE will have to be called. The longer Najib waits, the more uncertainty he faces, with the real prospect of diminishing electoral returns.

Part of this is a product of the hype surrounding the earlier windows to hold the election. By failing to call the polls on repeated occasions after the election machinery was ramped up and candidate lists forwarded, Najib fuels a possible perception of weakness, as the delays are read as a lack of confidence on his part.

Najib also opens himself up to further uncertainties. Each time the election has been put off, it has either been in the wake of a scandal revelation — such as the National Feedlot Corporation — or after a mass rally such as those involving the electoral reform movement Bersih.

A pattern has set in — where weaknesses in Najib’s political reform efforts have been showcased, only to lead to further efforts to reconsolidate support.

The question Malaysians are asking is what will come next. Most are saturated with stories of scandal and intrigue, but ultimately the longer the delay, the greater the possibility of further revelations and civil society mobilisation.

This was the pattern in 2007-2008 and it is already repeating itself, as illustrated by the recent protest against the controversial amendments to section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950. The changes presume that a person is guilty for anything written on their websites and social media mediums.

STATE OF THE ECONOMY

The most serious unknowns Najib faces with his delaying tactics involve the economy.

Malaysia has performed well in terms of growth under his watch — an average of 5.8 per cent growth in the three years. Yet the economy is closely tied to global trends.

Slowing growth in China, recession threats in Europe and a lacklustre economic recovery in the United States, cast real shadows on Najib’s political fortunes.

A slowdown is already evident, with third-quarter growth figures dropping to 5.4 per cent.

Najib’s government has also been unable to stave off the impact of global inflation. In the first six months of this year, stealthily but steadily prices for fuel have risen, with a 10-sen rise in the month before Hari Raya Puasa alone.

The attention to the economy calls into question Najib’s main strategy of using financial handouts to win support. Billions of ringgit have been doled out to constituents in a variety of forms, from vouchers to disadvantaged families to salary bonuses. More are expected in the upcoming Budget this month, the second year in a row the Budget will have been used as an apparent election primer.

While the influx of public sector cash in the economy has boosted consumption, little attention has centred on the long-term implications of short-term allocations and deficit spending.

Malaysia’s fiscal deficit has grown exponentially under Najib’s tenure from -5.6 per cent of gross domestic product in 2008 to -10.2 per cent last year.

CLOCK TICKING AWAY

In the midst of the myopic election focus, Najib’s efforts have stirred infighting within his own party, Umno.
Candidate hopefuls have been jockeying intensely, and this has intensified after the lists were forwarded this year. Positioning for candidacy has dominated attention, reinforcing the pressures on Najib to call the polls according to when different actors believe is “best”.

The longer the infighting goes on, the greater the political bruising will be within Umno.

Personally, economically and politically, Najib is caught in a political quagmire.

When he goes to the polls, he will face a fierce contest. And he will face real challenges to his position within Umno.

If he delays, conditions will reinforce a process of diminishing returns. The choice to delay has only served to heighten the pressure to perform.

As the countdown to the GE continues, Najib’s clock is ticking louder than ever. The next window ahead is early November and time will tell whether he will use this window to face the electorate. — Today

* Bridget Welsh is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She spoke on the Malaysian general election on August 14 as part of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) Seminar Series.

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