The guessing game continues

For the opposition coalition, its supporters having been whetted by 2008, cannot wait to make their dream of capturing Putrajaya a reality. For BN supporters, they cannot wait to wash away the bitter taste of 2008.

Zainul Arifin, New Straits Times

TALK of the general election is getting another boost with events coming to a head in Sarawak. Surely Sarawak will be the bellwether of all things politics, but would it be so soon?

Early this year, almost everyone was pushing the theory that the general election would be held by the first half of the year. Almost all commentaries, punditry and analyses were pointing to an early election, although Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has until 2013 to do so.

The argument was that the Barisan Nasional coalition was in better shape than it was in 2008 and that Najib needed a new mandate to do what he wanted to do.

Anyone with his ears to the ground and with insight into local politics would have seen the signs, surely. It was a sure winner, to use the betting parlance. General election in May or June! In fact, in some quarters, it was as if it was already pencilled in.

The truth is, no one knows, except, of course, Najib. Even then, events may conspire to influence him on the election date.

For example, some analysts suggest that should the United States falter and experience another recession, then with globalisation, and we being a trading nation, the economic troubles could reach our shores in a matter of months. It will be wiser for Najib then to seek a new mandate before the recession reaches us.

Then, of course, there are domestic considerations, both political and economic.

The 16 by-elections and the better results for his coalition, are, of course, factors, too. Similarly, and more importantly, I presume, would be the outcome of the Sarawak state election.

Sarawak would be the first major test for both BN and the coalition of DAP, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Pas, ahead of the big one, which is, of course, the 13th general election.

BN has done very well in the last handful of by-elections. Who would have thought of such a reversal of fortunes when, a couple of years ago, there were many who were eager to write the epitaph for the ruling coalition?

The back-to-back by-election victories suggest that BN is on the mend; so should it not strike while the iron is still hot?

However, discussions with BN leaders suggest that they are not only cautious, but feel that it is too early to conclude a trend of growing support for BN. While the results are morale boosters, they are not to be confused with certainty.

The opposition coalition, it is argued, would gain from an earlier election. In fact, if it were to be held earlier, they would have the upper hand riding on voters’ sentiment.

On radio, just about a week or so ago, an opposition member of parliament lamented Najib’s reluctance to call an election now, conveniently ignoring the fact that the prime minister has two more years on the current term.

Since March 2008, much water has flowed under the bridge. While parties in the BN coalition are undergoing changes, some rather traumatic, there were also mini explosions in the opposition coalition, especially in Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR. It had comical party elections, with its members and leaders dropping like proverbial flies.

Anwar, for instance, is now at an important juncture in his sodomy trial, with calls made for him to hand over his DNA. Instead, he is employing the diversionary tactic of lashing out at everyone and everything, except, of course, to address the issue at hand.

(Incidentally, his supporters suggested that Najib hand in his DNA over what they claimed to be complicity in the death of Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu. Najib, in Sarawak yesterday, agreed. Over to Anwar, now.)

Pas, on the other hand, is too tethered to Kelantan Menteri Besar Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat’s (at times) confusing dictates.

Its compromise on the Islamic state and then its sudden desire to burnish its religious credentials by banning legalised gambling in Kelantan has put it very much at odds with its other partners, especially DAP. Nik Aziz is now said to be softening his stance.

Obviously, some major differences cannot be papered over, but they are counting on loyal supporters to take them through. Could we say that the coalition of DAP, PKR and Pas is being held together by the thinning glue that are Nik Aziz and Anwar?

The only member of the coalition continuing to be strong is DAP. But it, too, seems to have dismissed the idea of taking over Putrajaya and instead may be looking at running a few states, like Penang, Selangor and Perak.

Logic would have it that Najib would grab at this opportunity with both hands and call early elections. Yet, if victory is defined as a return to a two-thirds majority, then BN leaders are cautious. They are also cautious of several state assemblies.

Furthermore, the opposition coalition is not unravelling and it would be wishful thinking for BN to think that the coalition will crumble.

Many opposition members of parliament, as opposed to their assemblymen in states where they govern, are blessed with not having to do anything much except to campaign. In fact, they have been in campaign mode since March 2008.

Sometimes, it seems, it is the opposition that is itching for an election. It cannot wait for one, even as we hear the nation almost groaning over yet another by-election. While we worry about the cost, and fear the damage done, some politicians seem to revel in them. A general election would be the ultimate party, obviously, for them.

March 2008 was considered an epochal moment in domestic politics. After the fine showing by the opposition coalition, there was much strutting about. There were commentaries and books written about it. Many, too, believe their own press.

Yet, the obvious popularity of Najib and the improving image of BN have made it difficult for them. Perhaps sensing the euphoria ebbing — the longer the wait, the more people can gauge the reality versus the hype — they have been egging for a general election. The sooner, it seems, the better.

Yet, the decision for a later general election may ultimately be due to practicality. Najib, for instance, needs to make sure many of his efforts to transform the economy and his party are taking shape. Many of the transformation programmes take years to start bearing fruit and people have to be convinced that these efforts will be good for them.

The perception that these programmes will deliver will go a long way in BN campaign promises.

The date of the general election will continue to be a guessing game for us. We are a highly politicised country and, for some, it cannot come too soon.

For the opposition coalition, its supporters having been whetted by 2008, cannot wait to make their dream of capturing Putrajaya a reality. For BN supporters, they cannot wait to wash away the bitter taste of 2008.

Punditry is as useful as a day-old newspaper, but without the responsibility. Today’s “analysis” and opinions can be changed tomorrow without any hint of apology, much less remorse.

Yet, with each passing day, presumably fewer people are putting their money on an early election.

Now, they are shifting it to being held in the second half of the year. Perhaps, if the elections are not held then, it would be early next year. The pundits would eventually get it right.