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Let’s have fresh elections

Stalemate ((C) Magda Moiola /

ALL eyes are on Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s announcement after Hari Raya, but no one would be surprised if he declines nomination for the president’s post in the Umno party election. But if that happens, he would be a lame-duck prime minister in the fullest form for the next five months.

Interestingly, Abdullah, who has survived de facto Pakatan Rakyat leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s threat to topple the government by inducing Barisan Nasional (BN) members of parliament (MPs) to defect on 16 Sept, did not survive the plot to force his early exit in the party supreme council meeting 10 days later.

Umno will likely have Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as the new leaders by March 2009. As much as former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah is unhappy about the delayed elections, he cannot do much but to bid farewell to his chance of making a comeback. He will not get support from Muhyiddin or former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whose sole political goal in the past three years has been to topple his successor.

Muhyiddin Yassin
The ruling coalition may also be counted on to get a bit more stabilised. With new leadership in Umno and the BN, aspiring frogs would now not immediately jump so as to avoid miscalculation. However, attrition of members from Umno’s discredited and dispirited West Malaysian allies, especially Gerakan, will continue.

No end to political stalemate

But would transition within Umno bring an end to the political stalemate since 8 March? We have not had a government since then because it was busy worrying about its own survival. And neither have we had much of an opposition, as they, too, have been constantly dreaming and plotting to be the next government.

The answer to the question, then, is no.

If anything, the Anwar-Najib rivalry will only become more intense, involving higher stakes than that between Anwar and Abdullah.

First of all, there is intense mistrust between the two. In fact, many Pakatan Rakyat supporters cite checking Najib’s rise to power as one reason for the crossovers to the Pakatan. It is quite unlikely that Najib will “return that favour” by treating the opposition parties in a kinder fashion than Abdullah has.

Secondly, the political futures of both Anwar and Najib are threatened by court cases: Anwar’s by his sodomy charge, and Najib by his alleged implication in the Altantuya Shaariibuu murder case. Any new revelation or evidence that comes up in these cases would lead to actions and reactions from both parties.

Thirdly, while it now looks impossible for Anwar to carry out his indefinitely deferred 16 Sept plan, the Pakatan Rakyat may nevertheless gain some momentum from October onwards. The defectors may quit not because of the viability of the government, but because of their own viability within parties.

Gerakan, MCA and Umno party elections

Gerakan logo. The party’s exit would be a great
blow to the Barisan Nasional
After losing Selangor, Kelantan, Kedah, Penang and Perak, the BN parties now simply have too little political resources to feed everyone. This makes the party elections in Gerakan, MCA and Umno ever more crucial to determine who may enjoy a shrinking cake and who needs to starve. Since there is no more guarantee that those who starve now will be compensated in the future, some of the losers in the parties’ elections may well choose to pack their stuff and move on.

In the case of Gerakan, the party election dynamics may even accelerate its likely exit from the BN, if not at least produce an ultimatum for the BN’s reform. Although Gerakan has only two parliamentarians, losing the relatively well-regarded minor party would be a great blow to Umno, as the coalition will be seen as increasingly Umno-controlled and unacceptable to non-Malays.

Depending on the election outcome, the MCA may lose some of its leaders, but it would not be deadly for both the party and the BN. Given the MCA’s high dependence on political and economic patronage and its significance to Umno (hence the latter’s willingness to offer good concessions), the defectors are likely to be those without legislative and executive offices.

The real threat, of course, is from within Umno. While the deferred party election may prevent a battle between Najib’s and Muhyiddin’s impatient supporters and Abdullah’s defenders, the longer time to the polls also breeds uncertainty.

As it has been pointed out by analysts, more money will need to be burnt by the party warlords, so those with smaller war chests will suffer.

Should Anwar manage to induce any crossover from Umno MPs, especially from the peninsula, the 16 Sept plan will be resurrected – this time with Najib calling Umno’s shots.

Fresh elections may settle the dust

Can the country and the economy endure more fears and anxieties wrought by the nobody-knows-when regime change game, possible arrests or even attacks of opposition leaders, demonstrations a la people’s power, and maybe even a declaration of emergency?

Members of Bersih who organised a rally on 10 Nov 2007
to campaign for electoral reform
There clearly needs to be a political solution. Since a powerful opposition that will remain “faithful” seems to be a luxury in Malaysian politics, the obvious solution is to make the opposition less powerful or more loyal.

We can learn from the United Kingdom. The 1974 February elections produced a Labour government with 37.8% of votes and 46.7% of seats. The minority government lasted only for nine months. A snap poll called in October returned Labour in power with a slight parliamentary majority of 50.2%, which nevertheless lasted for another four years. (In Denmark, the survival of minority governments is the  norm.)

Fresh elections alone will not guarantee political stability. It needs underwriting from both sides of the political divide to respect the electoral outcome.

This must begin with basic electoral reforms executable in the short run, including those demanded by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih): clean-up of the electoral roll; repeal of postal voting for security personnel; employment of indelible ink; a 21-day campaign period; and free and fair media access.

However, snap elections by their very nature rule out comprehensive electoral reforms, including addressing gerrymandering and malapportionment of constituencies (which the opposition parties seldom demand anyway). The imperfection must not be an excuse for crossover again. In other words, even if the BN wins an even slimmer victory, Anwar must accept his role as the parliamentary opposition leader. Reform must not overrule democracy.

The losers must be treated fairly in order for their willingness to be loyal. Threat of political persecution, whether in the form of Internal Security Act (ISA) detention, fabricated charges, or financial penalty to state governments only legitimises political challenges. The BN and the Pakatan Rakyat must commit themselves to respect, and cooperate with the legislative and state opposition should they win.

Let Malaysians decide

When should fresh elections be held? From Umno’s perspective, going to the polls before the March transition would be suicidal.

There is, however, a case to do it within months of Najib’s ascendance. He needs legitimisation. Tun Hussein Onn, Mahathir and Abdullah all held their maiden polls not long after their succession.

Failure to do this soon may make him a weaker leader than Abdullah. Mind you, he would begin with less public goodwill than Abdullah did. And there are vultures in Umno waiting for his misstep, who would not be as kind to him as they were to Abdullah.

If the latest Merdeka Centre opinion poll is any indication, a snap election may be a good bet for him. While 39% of all Malaysians prefer Anwar as their prime minister compared with 34% for Najib, the deputy prime minister led Anwar by 47% to 33% among ethnic Malays.

Najib and Anwar should let Malaysians choose their leader
Given the pro-Malay bias in the electoral constituency delimitation, Najib might just carry the BN through the polls. A victory, even a wafer-thin one, will buy him time to prove his worth. If the elections are relatively clean, it is unlikely that Malaysians would stomach more post-elections manoeuvring.

Many Malaysians have expressed their desire to directly elect their prime minister. With the idiosyncratic exception of Israel, no parliamentary democracy elects their premier directly. The closest alternative is to have a fresh mandate via general election for every new prime minister.

Both Anwar and Najib should commit to letting all Malaysians choose their leader at the polls. That would be my Hari Raya wish.

Selamat Hari Raya. Maaf zahir batin.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

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