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Does Malaysia's Governing Coalition Regain Momentum?
US pollsters call it the Big Mo – momentum – and, on the surface at least, right now it appears as though Malaysia's governing Barisan Nasional (BN) has it. On Sunday it won two by-elections in Merlimau and Kerdau, not only by comfortable margins but with substantial increases to its majority in both cases.
This means that since last April, the BN has emerged victorious in six of seven such contests, in a mixture of parliamentary and state assembly seats. And in the last five months it has not only won every time, but has also strengthened its hold on each occasion, either with bigger majorities or, in the case of Galas last November, by taking over from the opposition. On both sides of the Peninsula, and in West Malaysia and East, the forward march of Pakatan Rakyat, so confident after their great strides in the 2008 general election, has been stopped, or even reversed.
The latest results should fuel speculation that Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak will take advantage of his string of election successes, his high approval ratings (which have consistently been around 70 per cent over the last year, up from 45 per cent in June 2009) and the disarray in opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, to call a snap general election. He has no need to do so before 2013, but the circumstances seem fortuitous.
Quite apart from the above, there is the fact that in contrast to his ineffectual predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Najib comes across as a quietly determined dynamo who not only knows where the economic tiller is but has his hand firmly on it. He can boast excellent growth last year and the return of foreign investment after a dreadful 2009, and is restoring Malaysia's standing internationally, as shown by his being granted a coveted bilateral meeting with US President Barak Obama in Washington last April.
Moreover, the opposition too often does his work for him by providing the government with propaganda gifts. Day after day, various hotheads in PAS, the Malay Islamist party, make a nonsense of their alliance with the left-leaning, secular and mainly Chinese DAP. In January, PAS's candidate in the Tenang by-election did herself no favours by refusing to shake hands with men. Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen swiftly pounced.
"PAS claims it is not moving towards an Islamic state but why is their candidate making an issue about shaking hands with male voters?" she said. "It would be better if PAS openly states it wants to create a Muslim country governed by Muslim regulations."
In February, PAS's Youth leader Nasrudin Hasan Tantawi promised a crackdown on Valentine's Day against "sinful and immoral activities," embarrassing even members of his own party, while in the last few days the PAS-run state government of Kelantan has provoked a furor by suddenly banning sales of a popular lottery ticket, prompting the DAP's chairman, Karpal Singh, to protest that under federal laws the rights of non-Muslims to gamble cannot be restricted arbitrarily. If PAS was actively trying to scare the non-Malay electorate into voting against them, and if it was aiming to sabotage the opposition's message that it is for a Malaysian Malaysia where one community's priorities will not take precedence over others,' it could not be doing a better job.
So is a general election imminent? The opposition parties, and especially the DAP, have been readying themselves for battle stations for months. The Barisan constituent party the Malaysian Chinese Association is discussing postponing internal elections due to the expected national polls. Najib himself refuses to rule out a snap campaign, while giving every indication that he is seriously considering one, such as by meeting last month with 118 Barisan division chiefs to ensure that both sides were up to speed.
However, beneath all the confident talk there remains great unease about the Barisan's prospects. It may be that 2008 will prove to have been the opposition's high-water mark.
But what if they pull off another shock result and do even better? One senior Umno member of parliament told me recently of a doomsday scenario put forward by two teams commissioned to advise the government. According to this, he said, "we would win only four states – Johor, Melaka, Pahang and Sarawak."
Many younger voters, he pointed out, may work in the urban centres where the opposition is strong, but they remain registered in their home states. It would be a mistake for the Barisan to calculate that it can afford to lose the cities and rely on its traditional supporters in the countryside.
"The local people often live in rural areas where there is no internet," he said, "so they do not have access to so much information. But then the children come back to vote, and they have a different view. They have read all the stories on the web, the independent and opposition media, and they will talk to their families."
If the Barisan doing so badly sounds far-fetched, another high-ranking Umno official confirmed that losing a general election – unthinkable prior to the 2008 result - has been discussed within the party's councils. Some fear that in such a situation Umno diehards would try to have a state of emergency declared and the army step in. When that was raised, however, said the Umno official, it was "rejected absolutely."
"Handing over power in five states in 2008 has helped us come to terms with the possibility of losing a general election," he said.
The four-states scenario demonstrates why Barisan joy over Sunday's by-election victories should not be unconfined. Merlimau is in Melaka and Kerdau is in Pahang. Retaining seats the Barisan previously held in the four states it can still bank on, if everywhere else is lost, gives little or no indication of what will happen in the marginals it needs to take to regain the crucial two thirds supermajority in parliament that allows the government to amend the constitution.
It is also why the forthcoming Sarawak state elections are key. They must be held by July, and although the chief minister, Tan Sri Taib Mahmud, has been having fun keeping the date to himself, there have been strong hints it could be next month. That would be shortly after the 30th anniversary of his taking over the job, a day not necessarily to be overemphasised by Barisan campaigners well aware that recent reports have detailed how tidily he has done for himself over that time (not least on Asia Sentinel).
Despite his age, however, the 74-year-old Taib is fighting all out. And with a local opposition riddled with factionalism and which only holds seven of the 71 state assembly seats, most agree the question is not whether Taib will win but over the magnitude of his victory.
The degree still matters, though. The rumor from Kuching is that Taib's camp is pressing Najib to hold the national elections at the same time as Sarawak's, in either June or July, which would make it difficult for the opposition to focus too much attention on the state. Other figures, such as UMNO Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin, argue that Najib needs more time for his economic programs and reforms to take effect and for the Barisan component parties to raise their ratings to something like those enjoyed by the prime minister. Waiting until next year or so, however, runs the risk of an opposition recovery.
So what lessons can we draw from Sunday's by-elections? Given that the results were an increase in support in a heartland that the government expects to keep control of even if disaster strikes everywhere else, the answer is: not much really.
If that is frustrating for observers, it is not much help to Najib either, and he is the one taking the decision that will define his premiership.
"People warned Badawi about how bad the situation was in 2008," says one long-standing Umno MP, "but his people didn't take it seriously." That is not a mistake that Malaysia's sixth prime minister will have any intention of repeating.
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman (UK) and divides his time between London and Kuala Lumpur.