The long wait is nearly over. Did Najib delay too long?
With the Lunar New Year out of the way and after months - years, in fact - of speculation, it appears that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak will finally call national elections, probably for the second week in April, amid speculation that he may have let it go too long.
Under Malaysia's parliamentary system, inherited from Britain's 127-year rule, the prime minister can dissolve parliament any time he feels his chances are good of winning a majority. There has been speculation for two years over when an election would be called. But Najib put it off while he struggled to put his touted Economic Transformation Program (ETP) reforms in place and to let some of the myriad scandals around him cool off.
For the prime minister, there are dangers on several sides. The common wisdom is that he must not just preserve the Barisan Nasional's parliamentary majority in the 222 seat Dewan Rakyat, but must pull more than the 76 parliamentary seats that the United Malays National Organization won under his luckless predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in the disastrous 2008 election. He must also preserve more than 125 total seats for the component parties of the Barisan.
If not, his detractors say, he is likely to be blindsided from the right of his own party by forces aligned with ultra-Malay nationalists determined to preserve ketuanan Melayu, or Malay ethnic and cultural dominance and sovereignty. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, a Malay nationalist, is commonly believed to be after Najib's job although UMNO stalwarts deny it. The state political parties in Sabah and Sarawak, whose allegiance has always been slippery, are also said to be ready to opt for the opposition if the vote is close and the price is right.
Najib, an economist, has periodically threatened the ketuanan Melayu philosophy with his attempts to reverse some of the Malay privileges through the ETP's economic liberalization. That has resulted in loud demonstrations led by the ultra-Malay NGO Perkasa and its leader Ibrahim Ali, backed implicitly by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Although there have been no reliable polls, many political observers are predicting the closest election since Malaysia became an independent nation in 1957. Although the latest Merdeka Centre poll puts Najib's approval rating at a strong 62 percent - a figure western politicians would kill for - approval ratings for UMNO, the largest ethnic political party in the ruling coalition, have fallen below 50 percent. The party is widely perceived to be riddled with corruption and cronyism to the point where it is crippling the economy.
One of the biggest jokers in the deck is the presence of some 3 million new voters on the rolls. No one, political sources in Kuala Lumpur say, knows which way they will swing. Younger voters tend to be more liberal and urban ones are turned off by corruption. But Najib has been wooing them assiduously, attending pop concerts, wielding his Twitter account feverishly and setting up a string of Internet sites designed to counter the opposition news sites that gained widespread influence in the 2008 election, to the Barisan's detriment.
Although by law campaigning is prohibited until parliament is dissolved and is supposed to last a minimum of 10 days, both sides have kept up a furious drive against each other for more than a year, with nearly constant campaign meetings throughout the country. Najib's latest salvo, two weeks ago, was to bring the enormously popular Korean entertainer PSY to Penang to perform his famous Gangnam Style dance in the ethnic Chinese stronghold of the opposition Democratic Action Party. With his wife Rosmah Mansour in attendance, Najib asked the enormous crowd if they liked the singer. They roared their approval. Then, when he asked if they liked the Barisan Nasional, he was greeted with a long, loud "Nooooooo!!"
Then last week, Bernama, the state-owned news service, published a confident report on the Economist Intelligence Unit's predictions for the upcoming election, concluding that the respected research organization was predicting a strong victory going away for the Barisan - only to have the independent news Web site Malaysiakini come up with the real EIU report, which said no such thing but instead presented a sober-sided analysis that said the upcoming race would probably be one of the tightest in Malaysian history and that both sides were pouring in enough budgetary promises to imperil the country's finances if enacted.
Najib has long been expected to call the election for sometime around the second week of April after he completes the selection of candidates for Parliament. That is can be a precarious process. In 2008, which was the biggest election debacle since the Barisan took power, Badawi discarded some of the parliament's old bulls in favor of reform candidates only to have the ousted ones turn on him. That was partly responsible for the loss, for the first time, of the Barisan's two-thirds majority in the parliament.
Najib, an UMNO insider told Asia Sentinel, is wary of making the same mistake while at the same time seeking to choose enough reform candidates to mollify voters who have been fed up with a series of scandals big enough to make the word "massive" no longer trite.They include allegations of a US$150 million bribe to UMNO from French submarine manufacturer DCN; the misuse of a RM250 million soft loan by the family of the head of the UMNO women's wing for a National Feedlot Corporation project; an ongoing trial over the possible loss of as much as RM12.5 billion to corruption and mismanagement in the construction of the Port Klang Free Zoner and countless others.
The Election Committee is expected to set the polling date after parliament is dissolved. The Barisan is expected to wait until after April 4 for the elections themselves. Good Friday falls on March 29, Easter on March 31, and Qingming, the Chinese grave-sweeping holiday, on April 4, when Chinese families travel back to their hometowns, making an election holiday irritating at a time when Najib must seek to pull every Chinese vote he can get.
While Najib has promised a vast range of economic and other perks for civil servants and the rural poor in his budgets, the three-party Pakatan Rakyat led by Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat has campaigned on eliminating corruption, bringing greater transparency to the public bid process and dismantling the rent-seeking cartels and monopolies set up to protect the crony capitalists whose sway goes back to the 22-year reign of former Prime Minister Mahathir.
Along the way Anwar has had to endure renewed charges of having forced homosexual sex with a then 22-year-old aide. Acquitted of the charges a year ago by a Kuala Lumpur court, he was faced with an appeal of the decision by the prosecution. The case is still hanging over Anwar's head, making its way through the appeal process. Supporters of the 65-year-old Anwar have long alleged that the charges were trumped up by Najib and his wife.