Feb date for general elections?

The next general election will be taking place in a world that has not been this uncertain since Sept 11, 2001.  

Joceline Tan, The Star

REPORTERS at The Star were told to try and clear their leave in the first half of the year.

The editors are expecting the 14th general election (GE14) to be called towards the second half of the year and all leave on the editorial floor would be frozen if this happened.

May and June, reporters were told, were the “safest” months to go on leave because it was unlikely that the Prime Minister would be contemplating polls during Ramadan or the Syawal period.

Although the parliamentary term is due to expire only in August next year, analysts have been predicting that Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak would want to cement his hold on power with an early election given the ringgit’s strong pole position among Asian currencies this quarter plus the 5.6% growth rate year on year.

The guessing game has been going on since last year, with some even speculating that Najib would go for a snap election after returning from a China state visit.

September or October are the two months when the general election is most likely to take place – or at least that is what most people think.

The popular assumption earlier on was that Najib would want to ride on national sentiments arising from the SEA Games and the grand celebrations being planned for National Day and Malaysia Day.

Then more recently, word trickled out that China president Xi Jinping may be visiting Malaysia in October. That sort of pushed the possibility for election even further towards the end of the year, narrowing the window of opportunity.

But the word coming from the Barisan Nasional end is that the general election is more likely to be next year than this year.

“My guess is after Chinese New Year. It looks like the boss is going the distance,” said Kapar Umno division chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah.

Each time the Prime Minister speaks at a political function, it seems like the election is going to happen soon. The aim is to keep everyone in a state of preparedness.

During the Umno anniversary gathering at the Bukit Jalil stadium, Najib, when telling his party to be ready, had said that the election could be anytime and had added in jest that “I may even call it to tomorrow”.

“Everyone is trying to read the tea leaves but the thing is the PM will decide when he feels the time is right,” said Gerakan politician Ivanpal S. Grewal.

Najib has turned out to be quite impossible to second-guess.

Will he be repeating the mistake he made in the 13th general election (GE13) that almost derailed his political career?

His approval ratings had been positive in 2012 but he had held off from calling for election until May 2013 by which time his popularity had dipped.

Timing is important in politics and the conventional wisdom is that waiting till too close to the dissolution of Parliament is dicey because “anything can happen”.

“We are living in an uncertain world. There may be surprises ahead, it may not be a good idea to prolong the date,” said political commentator Khaw Veon Szu.

But said a political consultant to a Cabinet minister: “Get real, what do you expect to happen in the next 12 months that has not already happened? Nothing shocks me any more, whether here, the Middle East, America or Europe.”

According to one minister, the economic signs are getting better but oil prices are still uncertain and there is no guarantee it will firm up to US$60 (RM258) next year.

“We have to accept that it will continue to be depressed in the foreseeable future. Politically, the 1MDB issue is flaring up again but everyone has heard the arguments from both sides. These issues have been factored in,” said the minister.

According to the same minister, the Prime Minister still has the opportunity to call for the election this year.

“There are signs of this. He has asked our election machinery to be in full throttle. The PM and DPM have been meeting key state leaders over the last few months.

“Problematic divisions have been in discussion with the PM and DPM. Those yet to do so are scheduled to see the PM and DPM after the Raya period,” said the same minister.

The point he is making is that the Barisan election preparation has gone down to that level of discussing seats and potential candidates while the Pakatan Harapan coalition is still haggling over the Prime Minister post and who should be at the top of the coalition hierarchy.

One of the more convincing arguments why the Prime Minister might prefer to wait till next year is that he is likely to table a sweetheart budget in October and it takes a few months, possibly by February, for the honey to reach the ground.

Every election needs the feel-good factor but more important, the average voter has to be able to feel it in their pockets.

Said one DAP politician: “I have been moving around in Kedah. The business volume for Chinese traders who run sundry and hardware shops and whose customers are largely Malays has shrunk. It says a lot.”

Going in too early comes with its own perils given what happened in Britain. David Cameron who called for a referendum on the European Union just months after a general election lost his job and a snap general election now has Theresa May hanging on by a thread.

The world has not been this uncertain since Sept 11, 2001. The Arab Spring became the unlikely springboard to a chain of events that sparked off a war and led to the birth of IS.

Terrorism has become a clear and present danger and it has become what Khaw calls the “new normal”.

In that sense, GE14 will be taking place amid great uncertainty, even turmoil, in the world around us.

As Ivanpal pointed out, the insurgency in Mindanao, Philippines, is a cause for concern, as is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia.

Our neighbour was once held up as a beacon of moderate Islam but the fierce Muslim sentiments against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama aka Ahok, the Christian Chinese Jakarta governor, was a signal of the rising power of Islam. During the gubernatorial campaign, some mosques in Jakarta had preached that Muslims who voted for Ahok would go to hell.

Thailand is headed for another period of political uncertainty once the year-long mourning for the late King Bhumibol ends in October. The animosity and rivalry between the red and yellow supporters will resume in the run-up to an overdue general election with the generals in the background.

“It is an open, borderless world, the lesson that voters should bring to the ballot booth is that Malaysia cannot afford instability. We are not used to it,” said Ivanpal.

On the Pakatan side, the aim is to save Malaysia and introduce reform and change. The problem is that the man now leading the coalition is a 92-year-old man whom the opposition parties had once blamed for everything that was wrong with the country.

And that is why GE14 will be beyond interesting. Will voters go for the side that has been portrayed as corrupt and having been around too long? Or will they settle for the side that is unable to get their act together and is starting to resemble a coalition of chaos?

Or as the above political consultant put it: “Which is more dangerous? The devil you know or the angel you don’t know?”

What is clear though is that GE14 will be a battle for the Malay ground. Religion and race will be key issues as will nationalism versus foreign intervention.

“Malays are still quite an emotional race. They also want change but the change must be within the scope of Malay-Muslim domination. That will be the clinching point,” said the political consultant.

Likewise, their trust in politicians and political parties is also hinged on whether those politicians and their parties can defend their religious beliefs.

Non-Malays lament that Malays have become “too religious”. But Islam has become an inexorable tide that affects the way they think, live, work and even how they dress.

Who would have imagined that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong would don a simple jubah for his traditional breakfast with the Cabinet on the first day of Hari Raya?

Sultan Muhammad V comes from Kelantan, he is used to dealing with PAS politicians and Kelantanese are used to seeing him in his down-to-earth short-sleeved jubah.

On Hari Raya day, he looked perfectly comfortable sitting down for breakfast with the Cabinet members who were decked in their Hari Raya outfits.

The jubah used to be the trademark attire of PAS politicians but all that is in the past.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has been known to wear the jubah even at official functions. Najib, on his part, caused a stir when he appeared in a white jubah at a Selawat Perdana event several years ago.

Back to the big day, general elections in Malaysia have rarely taken place beyond the third quarter of the year.

In 1999, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, desperate to contain the fallout over his sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, held the 10th general election in November.

There has only been one October general election in 1990. April and August have been the most popular dates followed by March and May. It will be a first if Najib calls an election in February.

There is so much at stake for Najib. There is no more doubt that Barisan will win but Najib has to do better than in GE13, failing which it could be the end of the road for him.

“There is a greater sense of survival and urgency on the BN side than at any other time. The reality has sunk in,” said Ivanpal.