Snap election for Penang?


This party is famous for demanding that politicians resign for issues big and small but given the sense of siege in the party that day, it would not have been the done thing for any of the DAP leaders to suggest that Guan Eng go on leave. In fact, it would have been the death knell for anyone foolish enough to propose it.

Joceline Tan, The Star

THE noise level over Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s corruption charges has yet to subside but talk is rife of a snap election in Penang.

Speculation of snap polls in the state has taken on a life of its own despite the deafening silence on the part of DAP’s top-most leaders. It is hard to tell whether the silence is a sign that something is brewing or that the leaders are not keen.

The move would make Penang the only state other than Sarawak to go it alone and the implications are immense.

The snap election idea, according to a DAP insider, was first floated during the DAP central executive committee (CEC) on the afternoon after Guan Eng was charged in court.

Emotions were still raw after a dramatic morning that saw Guan Eng facing two charges of abuse of power and businesswoman Phang Li Koon, from whom he purchased his Pinhorn Road bungalow, charged for abetment in the transaction.

Top on the meeting’s agenda was to discuss whether Guan Eng should take leave from his Chief Minister office. The question was quickly settled because the consensus was that he should stay put.

This party is famous for demanding that politicians resign for issues big and small but given the sense of siege in the party that day, it would not have been the done thing for any of the DAP leaders to suggest that Guan Eng go on leave. In fact, it would have been the death knell for anyone foolish enough to propose it.

After it was decided that Guan Eng would stay on as Chief Minister, a party veteran, described as “one of the most tame personalities”, mooted the idea of a snap state election.

It would show their opponents in Barisan Nasional who is the boss in Penang, the party would be able to ride on public sympathy and the people would get the chance to reaffirm their support.

Two of the younger leaders in the CEC liked the idea and joined in arguing for it. One of them was Selangor DAP chairman and Petaling Jaya Utara MP Tony Pua who put up a strong case.

But, said the above DAP insider, all three advocates of snap polls were not from Penang. The Penang-based CEC members, on the other hand, kept quiet and did not contribute to the proposal.

The most glaring thing was the silence on the part of the two powerful Lims. Neither the father nor son said anything on the proposal and no one could tell what they were thinking.

However, it is clear by now that the idea does not appeal to the Lims, especially the elder Lim. Kit Siang has been around since the 1960s, he has seen it all and he must have sensed how dangerous an early and stand-alone state election could be for his party and, more so, when his son is at his most vulnerable.

“It is an option but there are also misgivings that we are trying to disrupt the legal process. It would be seen as calling the people to judge the case,” said party insider.

DAP and its partner PKR have the numbers to dissolve the State Assembly. But the reality is that DAP is not in a position to face a snap election. It is not even ready to hold its much-postponed party election.

Calling for a state election now means that the party has to confront issues which it can ill-afford to do at this juncture.

DAP, said the insider, would have to deal with the thorny issue of candidates, of who to retire off and new faces to bring in. That is a problematic thing in every election and could derail an already unstable situation.

The norm in every party is to bring in about 30% new faces as part of the renewal process but it is doubtful Guan Eng would be able to do that without the risk of a breaking of ranks. At the same time, calling for fresh polls without significant changes in the line-up would be meaningless.

“No one can rock their grip on the Chinese vote. An election will divert attention from the trial and distract from any incriminating evidence. But what is the point of voting in a status quo line-up?” said a Penang lawyer.

It will also raise questions of costs and expenses. The Sarawak election cost tax payers RM181mil and a separate election for Penang will likely cost at least half of that.

“It will open a Pandora’s Box. Can Guan Eng get a mandate equivalent to that in 2013? Anything less, whether in seats or votes, will be deemed an erosion of support,” said a Penang lawyer.

Simmering issues like internal party problems, friction with PKR and the residual impact of expelling PAS will also bubble to the surface.

The party will also have to address the succession issue of who will take over after Guan Eng. All eyes are on senior state exco member Chow Kon Yeow whom some call the “CM presumptive”. But the boyish-faced politician has been playing it cool and trying not to open his mouth unnecessarily.

The last couple of years has also seen a dip in Guan Eng’s image. His habit of blaming Barisan for everything has started to wear thin.

The educated class has grown uncomfortable with his authoritarian style, be it his propensity for mega projects as well as his way of dealing with dissent in his party and coalition.

“The noise level has gone up,” said the DAP insider.

Penang’s civil society are starting to balk at all those mega projects which one NGO figure termed as “so Mahathir”.

On Wednesday, Penang Forum, a grouping of Penang NGOs, came up with an alternative transport master plan for Penang. It was presented as “better, cheaper and faster” than the mega-bucks plan favoured by Guan Eng’s government.

Their audacity is seen by some as a challenge to the state govern­ment’s grandiose plans and a sign that they are not holding back anymore.

The group’s new frontline face is the well-spoken Datuk Dr Sharom Ahmat who used to be the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia.

For a number of years, these NGOs were enamoured with Guan Eng’s leadership. One of them used to describe the Chief Minister as “the most wonderful man”, another was awarded a Datukship while others were appointed to the boards of state GLCs.

But the love affair seems to be cooling off. The political tsunami is over and there is an opinion shift taking place especially among the intelligentsia.

The social media comeback on Guan Eng’s corruption charges was not as “hot” as some DAP leaders had expected it to be. There were many DAP diehards and right-wingers defending him but there were also many voices criticising him.

“You watch him say something today, another thing tomorrow, and after eight years, you get a better picture of what he is really like,” said the Penang lawyer.

Guan Eng’s position in his party is unshakable at the moment. His father will see to it that there will not be any moves to undermine his son.

His grip in the party will ensure that he holds on to his government post. It explained why the party moved so swiftly to endorse him on the very day that he was charged. It was to tell everyone that Guan Eng is staying put as DAP secretary-general and also Chief Minister.

“Moreover, the rebels in the party are no longer around. There is no one left to question his leadership,” said the lawyer.

Another deterrent to early polls is having to face the Barisan might. They saw the smooth operation of the Barisan machinery in the Sarawak state election. It was the same in the recent by-elections where Pakatan Harapan was hopelessly outflanked even in Selangor where it is the government and has full access to state facilities and resources.
They can see that Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is on a strong footing and is now dictating the political momentum.

DAP is good at making noise on issues but their grassroots organisation and machinery is quite lacking. For instance, some DAP leaders were disappointed with the less than impressive turnout at the candle­light vigil for Guan Eng outside the MACC headquarters the night before his appearance in court.

The modest crowd chanting support outside the High Court the next day was even more embarrassing. It was like a dripping tap compared to the deluge of people who flooded the streets after Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking in 1998.

Some in DAP are also worried that Barisan may declare emergency rule, using its powers under the National Security Council Act and that would be disastrous for Penang.

Snap polls would be impactful if Selangor also comes along but Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali is not the suicidal sort. There are also issues in Selangor that Azmin would prefer not to tackle right now.

The silence from the two Lims and the leaders in Penang speaks volumes. They can see danger signs in the idea and they are not going anywhere near it.

Moreover, said the DAP insider, there are voices from beyond Penang who say that the party must come first. Going for a state election because of one man is not on for them.

Besides, they are not sure what will come out when the trial proper begins later this year.

Some of them are spooked by talk of new charges stemming from the controversial Taman Manggis land in George Town. Stories about a Penang-born fund manager based in Hong Kong and his links with Penang politicians have also begun to circulate in a way that seem to point to something big in the making.

Then there is talk that the authorities are investigating the manner by which the former Penang racecourse stretch of land was rezoned. All this has added to the unsettling times.

There are simply too many fires all over the place and a snap state election could be the biggest blaze of all.