The question 10 million people are asking

28 December, 2007

No prizes for picking the year’s biggest unanswered question on the political front — the date of the looming 12th general election, which remains a mystery as 2007 draws to an end. ABDUL RAZAK AHMAD writes about the guessing game that’s become a national pastime THE fine art of polls prediction in Malaysia is a lot like trying to guess when it’s going to rain.

There are the early observable signs, such as the build-up of thick, dark clouds. The problem with “guesstimates” is they don’t always pan out — sometimes there’s a lot of thunder but just no rain.
This, if anything, has been the theme on the political front for the year.
“Political issues” have been mounting and swirling in the public sphere over the past 12 months, and some, like those relating to the dynamite combination of race and religion, were at times very loudly debated.
It built up the anticipation over the coming general election.
The year is ending but there is no election.
The deadline for the next polls isn’t until May 2009, though many observers still expect an early showing.
So, as New Year dawns, the 10 million-plus voters’ question remains — how much earlier?
The first “concrete” sign that had many working out an actual possible time frame was the decision made by Umno’s supreme council — the party’s highest decision-making body — in late September last year, to postpone the next round of its triennial election due this year by a maximum of 18 months. This, theoretically, allows it to hold its polls at the latest by July 2009 — two months after the five-year term of the present government expires.
The decision was widely read as one to allow the party to concentrate more fully on preparing for an early election. Umno had invoked the clause twice before — in 1999 and 2003, to make way for general elections.
Other parties — namely the MCA and DAP — followed suit to postpone their own internal elections.
Pas at its annual assembly last year amended its constitution to allow the party to defer its polls due this year if needed, but never exercised the option and went ahead with its party elections.
Again, the months rolled on and no polls took place. But the false alarms did not deter the tenacious pundits, who pounced on the announcement of an upward salary adjustment for the civil service in May.
The pay hikes — in the face of years of requests by civil service representatives including Cuepacs, the umbrella union for government employees, to offset the impact of the rising cost of living — again stoked speculation about a possible early election.
The announcements of regional growth corridors, including the northern and eastern corridor economic regions, were also taken as support for the belief that the government was working up a “feel-good” factor to allow it to strike while the iron was hot and hold snap polls.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, speaking in Tokyo during a visit to Japan in May, scoffed at the notion that his recently announced pay increases for government workers signalled an impending general election.
“Why must any good thing we do be linked to the general election?” he said.
For Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia academic Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, there is a perfectly normal reason why many seem obsessed with the coming polls.
“I think the excitement is not so much in predicting when it’s going to be, but over the event itself; the campaigning and the casting of votes.
“It’s a gripping process because that’s when the voters get pampered and suddenly ‘valued’ very highly,” he says.
The special excitement Malaysians have about elections is also due to the lack of a culture of referendum in the country. In Malaysia, the mandate is mainly sought during the general election, which is perhaps when voters are consulted and heard out most, he explains.
“We don’t often have referendums, apart from polls. So the anticipation is all about people eager to have their say through the ballot box.”
From the parties’ perspectives, maintaining and building up anticipation over the coming polls also has its benefits in keeping party members and the machinery on their toes.
For the Barisan Nasional, maintaining the suspense over a possible snap polls can also be used as a strategy to tire opponents, who will be forced to go all out all the time – what some have described as political rope-a-dope.
It’s widely believed that the BN will not be able to repeat its historic sweep of over 90 per cent of seats – which it accomplished in 2004 due to the sheer force of gravity.
There are worries over inflation and cost of living increases due to factors such as rising world oil prices. There’s also supposed unhappiness among a section of the Chinese and Indian electorate, as well as mounting opposition attacks on the government.
But recent comments from some observers and results of public opinion polls, including one commissioned by the NST, indicate that the coalition will be able to retain its two-thirds majority.
The next polls, in other words, will likely be about the electorate deciding how far to re-adjust the present balance between the BN and opposition to suit their aspirations.
Some disconcerting undertones have emerged — a propensity by some to resort to allegations that touch on potentially explosive race and religious sensitivities in order to build support — and they indicate how some already appear to be going for broke.
In any case, the polls are obviously drawing ever closer. In ushering the New Year, what’s certain is that the minutest sign of possible elections will get scrutinised even more closely.