Malaysia Getting Election Fever?

Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud Friday is expected to call for the dissolution of the East Malaysian state's assembly, according to local media.

The polls, which must be held in prior to the expiry of the state assembly's term in July, have long been regarded as a precursor to national elections, which must be held before the end of 2013 but are expected sooner to give Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak another five-year term in office. Much depends on the prevailing atmosphere once the Sarawak elections are held, along with a continuing series of by-elections brought on by heart attacks, scandals, defections and other political problems.

By rights the 74-year-old Taib, who has ruled Sarawak for 30 years, should face the strongest challenge of his career, if not the threat of criminal investigation, although the political wisdom is that his Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu Sarawak can be expected to pull out a victory over the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, with or without him.

Over several months last summer, a Sarawak-based NGO called the Sarawak Report issued a series of exhaustively detailed reports documenting through officials records in the United States. Canada and the United Kingdom Taib's vast personal holdings, including a Seattle, Washington home for which he appeared to have paid US$1 to a company to which he granted lucrative timber concessions. The stories, reprinted by Asia Sentinel, can be found here, here, here, and here.

News reports over the past several months have quoted sources within the Barisan Nasional as hoping Taib would step down because of the scandals attached to his name and that of his family. The Sarawak Ngo's reports included repeated requests to Malaysian authorities to investigate what appeared to be 30 years of looting the state for its timber and other natural resources. However, nobody ever answered the NGO's requests for a probe of Taib's immense overseas assets. It is clear that the national government values the political security it gets out of Taib's Sarawak political apparatus over any questions of integrity.

Although some observers expect early national elections as well, sources within the United Malays National Organisation, the country's biggest ethnically-based political party, told Asia Sentinel that Najib would prefer to hold off national elections until later in the year to allow the economic stimulus from a panoply of economic projects to kick in, including the beginning of construction of highways, a mass rapid transit system for Kuala Lumpur, a 100-storey office building and other projects.

Malaysia's politics have been tumultuous for almost three years, since the opposition Pakatan Rakyat troika of parties broke the 50-year two-thirds stranglehold on the Dewan Rakyat, or national parliament, by the Barisan Nasional, the national ruling coalition. The heart attack death on Feb. 10 of Zaharuddin Abu Kasim, a Pahang state assemblyman representing UMNO, clears the way for the 16th by-election since national elections stunned the Barisan Nasional in 2008 national elections.

The opposition continues its precarious hold on more than a third of the Dewan Rakyat. But how long that will continue is not known. While the most recent by-elections have mostly gone to the parties that held them previously, the percentage of votes going to the Barisan have steadily gone up.

Certainly Najib has a tailwind from a strengthening economy and a perception that he is an activist, compared to his predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. His personal approval rating remains extremely strong at 69 percent according to a Merdeka Center poll which was released on Christmas Eve, despite long-running allegations of massive kickbacks paid on defense purchases when he was defense minister, not to mention widespread continuing questions over complicity in the 2006 murder of a Mongolian translator, Altantuya Shaariibuu, the jilted lover of his best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda. Even among ethnic Chinese, Najib's approval rating remains a strong 54 percent.

UMNO, however, enjoys no such cushion. Polls show approval of the political party at just 22 percent after a vast number of scandals demonstrating the lips-and-teeth relationship of successful Bumi businessmen to the party. Only 6 percent of Chinese place any trust in the party. It is thus questionable at the moment whether UMNO could win back the Barisan's two-thirds majority. The two other main parties in the Barisan coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, may be in even worse shape, given huge scandals in both.

To prime the economic pump, Najib has allocated nearly RM100 billion (US$32.8 billion) to a series of ambitious projects under his 10-year Economic Transformation Program. The total ETP, as it has become known, is estimated to cost a whopping RM443 billion. But there are deep concerns about the ETP from a lot of different angles, including whether the spate of enormous projects might drive up the economy initially, but could result in overinvestment followed by prolonged periods of low investment and low growth.

For instance, there is apprehension among analysts whether Kuala Lumpur needs another skyscraper, especially one that will be 100 storeys high and built by the government. The iconic twin towers have been largely filled by Petronas and other government offices. Former Prime Minister Mahathir, who built them, has expressed concern in his blog, Che Det, whether the proposed one is viable. Real estate analysts fear a coming property glut.

The other concerns revolve around who will get the contracts to build the projects. Far too often, government contracts have provided a cornucopia of goodies for what has become known universally as the UMNOcrats. At least 23 of Malaysia's biggest companies have been vehicles for UMNO to siphon off vast amounts of money as Mahathir's plans to industrialize the country went awry.

Today a new group of UMNOcrats appears to be on the march, closely related to Najib. The entity being watched most closely is 1Malaysia Development, a sovereign wealth fund that was somehow transformed out of a Terengganu wealth fund into a vehicle to advance Najib's government investment projects. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, is said to be very closely connected to it and other projects.

Mahathir himself, apparently without irony, complained recently to local media that the party that was under his tutelage for 22 years – and created the kleptocracy that is now UMNO -- is a party of "contracts, APs and licences."

However, the opposition led by Anwar is in disarray, with frequent defections, the biggest one by Zaid Ibrahim, who left UMNO two years ago to join Anwar in PKR. However, Zaid re-defected some months back, charging that the party was undemocratic, and founded Kita, or the people's Welfare Party.

Anwar himself is not only involved in a marathon trial over sodomy charges by a former aide but has been barred along with three members of his coalition from participating in the Parliament for six months on charges that he lied in criticizing the government over Najib's "One Malaysia" slogan, which he said had been copied from the "One Israel" political alliance of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak in 1999. The sodomy charges have led some within his coalition to ask whether he is too preoccupied to continue to lead.

So if and when the national elections take place, as they must, it appears there are plenty of wild cards among two coalitions that face continuing trouble, in a country where racial tensions continue to tighten. In an op-ed article in the Wall Street journal last week, former US Ambassador to Malaysia John R. Malott (1995-1998) said racial tensions are worse than they were when Najib took office, and perhaps as bad as they have been since July 1969 race riots took the lives of hundreds on both sides of the ethnic divide. A survey of sources in Kuala Lumpur makes it difficult to believe he isn't right, despite the scorn heaped on him by the country's mainstream press, which is controlled by the main political parties.