Election 2008: What really matters in an election

By Kalimullah Hassan
SO, at last, parliament has been dissolved and the general election will be held soon. Maybe March 1 or 2; maybe March 7 or 8; maybe in between. There are no prizes for guessing, so it could be anytime in the next month or so. What do we have now that the “when” question has been answered?

Remove the rhetoric and like always, the general election is pared down to two questions: what have you done for me over the past four years and what are your future plans for me and my family?
Little else matters, really.
Not the bunting. Not the slogans. Put simply, most of the time, success or failure at the polls is about the track record and the roadmap for the future.
That is why Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has sprinkled the words “report card” quite liberally in his speech for the past few days. When asked about possible candidates for the coming elections, he said that he would study the report cards of each elected representative before deciding.
When asked about his confidence level going into the polls, he said that most policies of the Barisan Nasional government had been implemented and projects were on track.
“We have carried out our duties and responsibilities on many things desired by the people,” he said, noting that the government had managed to reduce poverty, transformed government-linked companies and launched the corridor development strategy to bring growth to different parts of the country.
The corridor development, probably, is one of the most far-sighted programmes ever introduced by the government since the time of Tun Abdul Razak.
In past years, development had been Klang Valley-centric. Now, if implemented and executed well, the heartland, the rural and semi-urban enclaves where the large majority of Malaysians live, will get a greater share of their country’s wealth.
From the statements by Abdullah, it appears that he will make his administration’s track record over the past four years the BN’s main campaign weapon. He knows that the opposition has been flaying the government for allegedly not keeping to promises made in the manifesto in 2004. He knows that the opposition will try and capitalise on concerns about inflation and law and order.
He knows that there will be an attempt to draw the Barisan Nasional into a debate on marginalisation of races. He knows that the opposition may try and draw BN politicians outside their comfort zone and discuss issues of race and human rights.
But in all likelihood, Abdullah and his colleagues in BN will stay clear of getting tangled in verbiage, and stay focused on what they have delivered since March 2004. Several surveys commissioned by various political parties and news organisations show that bread and butter issues and the economy feature high on the minds of the Malaysian electorate.
It seems clear that the BN will point to the fact that economic growth in Malaysia has been steady under its stewardship and that the country’s fundamentals are the strongest they have been for a long time.
The country’s reserves are at their highest; the stock market has breached historical highs and the budget deficit has been slashed considerably to a manageable and internationally acceptable level.
Abdullah is also likely to focus on the gains made in the rural economy where robust commodity prices have pushed the average monthly income of rubber smallholders from RM760 to RM1,500 and the earnings of oil palm smallholders to above RM5,000 a month.
Judging by several advertorials that have appeared in newspapers in the last few weeks, the coalition will also make a case that it has made significant inroads in improving the public delivery system.
The BN’s ability to keep the economy growing, bridge the rural-urban divide, improve the public delivery system and bring equitable growth to different parts of the country will form the foundation in the coalition’s effort to answer the “What have you done for me in the last four years?” question.
More challenging will be the second question: “What are you going to do for me and my family next?” This is not about announcing an increased allocation or making trite statements.
Underlying this question is the ability of a political party or a leader to inspire hope in the government and country. This is a tricky question because politicians are hesitant to make any promises that could be difficult to implement after the euphoria of victory has died down. But arguably, BN will have to get over this mental block if it wants the support of fence-sitters, the middle-class and business elite. Surveys show that the number of undecided or fence-sitter voters varies between 20 and 40 per cent from state to state. For this category of voters, the quality of candidates is important as is the ability to capture the imagination with sound policies and ideas.
For a start, the prime minister should make clear that he will be fielding a new slate of candidates to refresh the cabinet and senior leadership positions in the government. This policy of renewal is long overdue. While there is a need to blend age, experience and youth, at the same time, to serve a majority young population, the country needs leaders with whom they can relate and sync. Also needed are clear plans to make sure that Malaysians of every race and religion feel that they have a stake in this country.
The BN has a proven track record in its successes in the last 50 years. It also has shortcomings that have made people unhappy with it.
But, on the other hand, the alternative is a hodge-podge loose coalition of three political parties — the Chinese-based DAP, the Islamic-centric Pas and the smallest, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), whose main objectives — apart from attacking their de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s former colleagues in Umno and dwelling on his sacking from government in 1998 — seem to be unclear.
The only way the opposition will make headway will be if the level of unhappiness with the BN is so high that voters are willing to show their protest through the ballot box.