September 18, 2012
Malaysia’s PM Najib struggles with Election Dilemma
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak is struggling with the thorny problem of when to call an election because polls indicate voters, unlike in the past, are refusing to respond to government handouts and patronage with their support.
Lavish government spending to boost Malaysia’s economic growth figures and direct handouts to students and low-income households have failed to reverse the prospect that the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, in power since independence form Britain in 1957, could face defeat in the coming election.
Najib must by law call an election by the end of April next year, but he appears to have been trying to prepare the ground to call the vote earlier.
Speculation in Malaysia has zeroed in on a November election, and the deciding factor will probably be public response to the budget scheduled for Sept. 28.
This is expected to contain more largesse, including more cash handouts to low income families. This year alone Najib’s government has given the equivalent of $820 million to families on bottom-rung incomes. There have also been cash payments to students and juicy pay raises for civil servants.
And the efforts to boost Malaysia’s feel-good factor included an apparently healthy rise in the gross domestic product, which was an annualized increase of 5.4 per cent in the second quarter of 2012.
However, the GDP figures got significant help from public sector investment in major government-linked oil and gas projects.
There was also major investment and disbursements to the private sector from the $444 billion Economic Transformation Program put aside some years ago to assist Malaysia to become a fully developed industrialized national by 2020.
Najib became Prime Minister and took over the leadership of the leading partner in the BN coalition, the United Malays National Organization in 2009. His predecessor Abdullah Badawi was forced out after the BN failed in 2008 elections to win a two-third majority for the first time since 1957.
Polls show that Najib’s popularity is running at 64 per cent, but only 42 per cent like his government, despite some democratic reforms as well as the cash handouts, such as removal of the hated Sedition Act.
Other polls show that 84 per cent of the 222 seats in Parliament are up for grabs in the election. The remainder are safe seats equally divided between the BN and the Opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim.
Najib has put off calling the election and trying to obtain his own electoral mandate several times since taking over the government and party leadership.
His plans have been frustrated either by a new government or party scandal, of which there have been many, or else some mass demonstrations by the anti-corruption movement called BERSIH, meaning “clean” in Malay, which is allied to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) coalition.
But Najib’s freedom of movement is shrinking as the days pass. He is now faced with an unenviable choice. He can go to the polls very soon, even though the public does not appear to have responded to the government’s economic stimulus and blandishments.
Alternatively, he can wait until next year when prospects might be better, but when it is just as likely that the burnishing of the domestic economy will have worn off and the ripple effects from the global economy could be worse.