Malaysian PM Najib to Dissolve Parliament?

After months of dithering, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is expected to dissolve Parliament tomorrow to prepare the country for national elections, according to the party-owned New Straits Times newspaper.

The cabinet was said to be meeting late today although no reason was given. If Parliament were dissolved tomorrow, the election date would probably be before April 27, the New Straits Times speculated. Parliament must dissolve automatically on April 30 if the prime minister lets it go to the full term.

If it isn't tomorrow, however, it has to be soon. The Barisan Nasional is being pushed into national elections by the dissolution of state governments that have run their full term. Negeri Sembilan's state assembly has already been dissolved automatically and Pahang, Johor and Selangor are not far behind. If the country is to hold simultaneous elections, Najib, however reluctant, must follow suit soon.

Najib and the United Malays National Organization, the country's biggest political party, are clearly running scared, political analysts in Kuala Lumpur say. The government has been handing out money on an unprecedented scale, for instance with the announcement yesterday that 4,000 workers for the national energy company Petronas would receive RM1,000 (US$323) bonuses "for their hard work."

Raises have gone to the military, the police, the civil service, the state-owned national telecoms company Telekom Malaysia, Permodolan Nasional Bhd, the government's sovereign fund, and staffs of several statutory bodies. Money has been poured into low-cost housing and other programs that particularly benefit ethnic Malays, the UMNO base.

Although there is a statutory limit on campaigning, both the opposition and the Barisan have been in no-holds-barred campaign mode for more than a year, with both sides charging the other with a long panoply of misdeeds - enough so that most of the vote has probably solidified by now and can only be turned liquid by the application of stupendous amounts of cash, which Najib is attempting to do.

"I expect (Pakatan Rakyat, the three-party opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim) to win," said one veteran independent political figure in a telephone interview. "But we have never seen money handed out like this in history. I do not know what kind of an impact it will have."'

The ruling Barisan Nasional currently holds 137 of the 222 parliamentary seats facing election, while Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat holds 75. The other 10 are held by independents or splinter parties. Pakatan Rakyat continues to hold four of the five states it won in upset 2008 elections.

Under many of the traditional markers, the Barisan Nasional, which has held power since Malaysia became a nation, should be coasting home. The economy has defied global headwinds to post respectable 5.6 percent gross domestic product growth in 2012, with billions of dollars in new foreign and domestic investment pouring into the country, largely because of renewed confidence in Najib's Economic Transformation Program. The CPI remains relatively tame, at a 1.5 percent annual rise. The country is gerrymandered to the Barisan's definite advantage, taking only 50.27 percent of the vote in 2008 but winning nearly twice as many seats as the opposition.

The Barisan, however, appears almost guaranteed to lost at least 80 percent of the Chinese-majority and mixed seats, with the Malaysian Chinese Association, the second-biggest ethnic party in the Barisan, reeling from infighting and two massive scandals, one over the loss of billions of dollars in the construction of the Port Klang multimodal port facility west of Kuala Lumpur, and a second over the misappropriation of millions of dollars of a soft loan to develop a national halal cattle feedlot. The Chinese, who make up about 25 percent of the country, have also been put off by strident racism on the part of UMNO and splinter groups such as the Malay-nationalist Perkasa NGO.

On top of that, however, there is a palpable sense that UMNO is a tired, extensively corrupt political organization whose top cadres have profited from rent-seeking and sleaze, and that little of the country's riches have trickled down to the kampungs, the rural Malay villages that make up the backbone of UMNO's support. Nonetheless, Najib has been wooing them assiduously, handing out RM563 million to second-generation oil palm plantation settlers - almost all of them ethnic Malay or Indian - last November "as a promise fulfilled by the Barisan government," he said in an address in the suburban city of Shah Alam. Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the rural fundamentalist opposition party that has held sway along the upper eastern seacoast, has been attempting to make inroads into that vote.

Najib's popularity has been slipping as well, although it remains at levels most western politicians would kill for. The respected Merdeka Poll reported in February polling that his popularity had fallen from 63 to 61 percent. No new polls have been held since.

The question is what equation would allow Najib to continue in his job. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, is disliked by a large percentage of the urban population because of rumors of enormously expensive purchases of jewelry, handbags and clothing. Her former close friend, a carpet-seller and businessman named Deepak Jaikishan, has raised a furious campaign against her, alleging that she played an instrumental role in shepherding Perumal Balasubramaniam out of Malaysia in 2008 after the private detective delivered a sworn statement saying Najib had had an affair with Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian woman who was murdered in 2006 by two of Najib's bodyguards. Deepak later alleged that he had participated in RM4 billion worth of business dealings with her.

Last week, the former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, shocked party stalwarts by saying Najib might be forced to step down if UMNO does badly. Najib, according to the common wisdom, must do better than the 76 seats won for UMNO by his lackluster predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and must do better than the 137 the Barisan now holds in the Dewan Rakyat, or Parliament. Party insiders say Najib has been hearing footsteps for months from his vice premier, Muhyiddin Yassin, who is believed to be aligned with Mahathir.

The big question, political analysts say, is which way the 3 million new voters who have registered since the 2008 election, many of whom are disaffected by the continuing charges of corruption surrounding UMNO, will vote.. The conventional wisdom is that younger voters are more liberal and thus more likely to be aligned with the opposition.

Najib, however, has campaigned energetically for younger voters, seeking to act as hip as possible for a 59-year-old Oxonian economist. He has brought in the fantastically popular Korean pop star PSY for a rally in Penang and lured action movie star Jackie Chan to another event to press the flesh for Chinese voters.

Should the outcome be close, and should Najib be ousted either by the opposition or by the long knives of his own party, that raises several questions -- whether his elaborate Economic Transformation Program disappears with him. The country has long been stuck in the so-called middle-income trap, per capita incomes having fallen far behind those of neighboring Singapore. It also brings up the question whether - in the event Pakatan Rakyat were to win -- he would be indicted on charges of corruption over the purchase of billions of dollars of military hardware during his tenure as defense minister.

Prosecution of wrongdoers is mostly an alien concept, not only in Malaysia but across Southeast Asia. But Anwar, were he to actually take over as head of government, would have plenty of reason to go after him, since Najib appears to have been behind an attempt to snare Anwar on renewed charges of sexual perversion in the so-called Sodomy II trial that ended in acquittal a year ago - although government prosecutors have appealed that decision.

There is also the question of whether, if the election is close, there will be violence. The year-long election campaign has been marred with extremely harsh rhetoric and occasional flareups, particularly at the hands of the Malay supremacist organization Perkasa and its firebrand leader, Ibrahim Ali. Political analysts regularly invoke the events of May 13, 1969,* the closest election in Malaysian history, which resulted in race riots that took the lives of hundreds on both sides.

But, according to Zaid Ibrahim, the former Law Minister for UMNO and later a leader of Pakatan Rakayat before he fell out with Anwar, that was a confrontation between Chinese and Malays. Now there is a sizeable contingent of ethnic Malays in the opposition, first in PAS, and second in Anwar's own Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which is made up mostly of urban, moderate middle-class Malays. If he were to pull off a win, it would be because ethnic Malays have turned against UMNO in great numbers.

*Corrected 3 April 2013