The big question now is when?

By : Syed Nadzri

New Straits Times

THE foreign press is saying the Malaysian general election will not be held so soon. And they seem to be having a field day speculating that, contrary to popular belief, the polls will not be called as initially expected – nowhere around January, February, March or even April, according to reports filed the past fortnight.

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I don't know, because to me the ripe time (or the right time) for the ruling party was two months ago. But of course I was just trying to be smart – just like the foreign press and everybody else.

Though parliament's five-year term only ends in May 2009, the likelihood of a "delayed" general election as reported abroad can be read as bad press for the country.

A friend in Taiwan asked me in an email over the weekend whether I was doing all right in view of a news report that appeared in the China Post on Friday headlined: "Malaysia protest crackdown may delay early poll plans".

The story, which was picked up from Reuters, described the recent crackdown on street protests in Kuala Lumpur as "dramatic" and that this could force a delay in plans for an early election next year.

The annotation also inferred that a delay was inevitable in the polls which had been widely tipped to take place within the first three months of next year.

Quoting American political analyst and Southeast Asian specialist Bridget Welsh of Johns Hopkins University, it said the arrests of demonstrators were only part of the reason and that the key additional factors were the larger impact of the protests.

AFP also released an analysis in similar tone, one of which was published by the Saudi Gazette two weeks ago headlined "Turmoil may delay Malaysia polls" (notice the choice of words).

Among other things, it said that street protests and looming fuel hikes have made it unlikely for polls to be called any time soon, at least until after the middle of next year.

The stories were also picked up by newspapers in many other countries in the region, including the Gulf states, Pakistan, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia and Thailand.

And then there's this report in the Wall Street Journal published 10 days ago: "Malaysia is facing its biggest political crisis since 1998. Since November, around 30,000 people have rallied for electoral reform, and more than 20,000 ethnic Indians have protested against economic discrimination".

Some newspaper reports from across the Causeway seem to be saying the same thing as well.

An analysis by Today newspaper on Dec 10, for instance, included this line: "In Malaysia, diminishing votes for the ruling coalition and the outbreak of riots suggest widespread disenfranchisement of its Chinese and Indian minorities".

In another report, the daily said "rising political tension and more turmoil in the streets have shaken Malaysia like never before".

It further posed this question: "And even as the hunt hots up to uncover the ringleaders behind the past year's half-a-dozen rallies, the question on most minds is this: will a rattled government have the confidence to call elections early next year? Unlikely, say analysts".

Yes, sounds like everyone's trying to be smart. After weeks of intense speculation, each has his own theory about why the polls will not be called in the coming weeks, including the foreign press.

But while there may be some basis for casting doubts concerning the dates, the reasons quoted could be oversimplified in the rather sophisticated Malaysian political context.

For one, the goodbye gestures by members of parliament at the end of the last session on Wednesday seemed to drive home the feeling that it was adieu, a time to part unless and until they get voted in the next round. As elected representatives, they gave that impression.

There are other signs around: information bureaus of Barisan Nasional component parties are holding polls briefings all over the place, Kelantan Umno is already talking about its manifesto and efforts have been intensified to explain to the people the justifications of an imminent rise in fuel prices (presumably just after the election).

But one of the surest indications that elections are around the corner is when you find some people, even the least likely, having no qualms about making little predictions.

This includes former finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin, who surprised everyone by coming out to talk about the expected "hot spots" in the polls.

In an interview with China Press last week, Daim, famous for being most reticent when he was serving in the government, was suddenly giving public opinion.

He said there would be three hot spots that BN would have to look out for in the coming election – Kedah, Penang and Selangor.

But it's like stating the obvious really – Kedah has always been a peculiarity in the Malay belt because of the unpredictability in Pas support, Selangor because of contemporary urban issues and Penang has for years been a bastion of opposition trumpcard as well as internal tiff within the ruling coalition.