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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 19, 2008
Abdullah's finger on Malaysia's election trigger
By Anil Netto

PENANG - Malaysia’s political parties, including the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), are gearing up for snap polls, widely expected to be held in March though the government is not legally required to dissolve parliament and hold general elections until May 2009.

So then why would Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's government opt to hold elections well before they are due?

One reason cited by many analysts is that his ruling coalition is

keen to secure a new mandate before former deputy premier-turned-opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim becomes eligible to contest the polls in mid-April. Anwar has been barred from contesting polls or assuming any formal political positions for five years over corruption charges for which he was imprisoned in 1998 and released in 2003.

Abdullah's government is also expected to raise oil prices some time this year and would clearly prefer to do so after, rather than before, general elections, given the strong protests that erupted in the wake of the last hike in 2006. The longer his government puts off the election, the more oil subsidies it will have to absorb. Fuel and gas subsidies reportedly now cost the government around 40 billion ringgit, or US$12 billion, per year.

Fuel price hikes would likely hurt consumer spending - which grew an impressive 13% last year - as the public cuts back on discretionary purchases to make up for higher transport and food costs. Meanwhile, economic uncertainties arising from a possible US recession also point to an earlier rather than later election. Although the government has launched a policy of so-called growth "corridors" - state-drawn economic blueprints for the country’s main geographical regions - it is still not clear how soon, if at all, they will produce more provincial-driven economic growth.

Another factor pointing towards early polls is that the longer the Abdullah's administration waits, the more the current sense of public discontent could spread. Two major demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur last November, and a series of smaller protests in the last couple of months, have clearly unnerved the ruling establishment. The main parties in the ruling coalition are either mired in untimely controversies or factionalism, though they are expected to set their internal differences aside to confront the opposition.

Throughout much of his tenure, Abdullah, who is also head of UMNO, has had to endure pot-shots from his predecessor, former premier Mahathir Mohamad, over his economic decision-making and allegations of undue influence among his closest advisers. Meanwhile, the main Chinese party in the ruling coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association, is still reeling from a video sex scandal involving the health minister, who was previously regarded as a potential challenger for the party leadership. As the scandal unwinds, some believe it could further deepen factional rifts within the party.

Another major component party of the coalition, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), faces a crisis of legitimacy after a loose network called the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) succeeded in mobilizing 30,000 Indian Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur last November to protest against the perceived growing marginalization of the community. MIC president Samy Vellu has been widely criticized for not improving the lot of Malaysia's Indian poor, despite leading the party since 1980.

Modest poll goals
Despite the coalition's mounting troubles, the opposition has thus far been unable to mount a united front. For one, the secular and ethnic Chinese-based Democratic Action Party is unwilling to link up directly with the opposition Islamic party, known locally as PAS. Instead, the DAP is forging an electoral pact with Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People's Justice party, which in a complicated maneuver plans to form a separate electoral pact with PAS.

Both pacts nonetheless share a common political objective: to ensure that only a single opposition candidate stands in each constituency, thus ensuring one-on-one fights with the ruling coalition for all 219 parliamentary seats.

Even so, few analysts expect the ruling coalition to lose at the next polls. One main reason: UMNO maintains tight control over television, radio and most of the print media. It also has access to government funds and state agencies which critics say it has used in the past to its electoral advantage.

The redrawing of constituency boundaries - where rural seats in which ethnic Malays represent the majority are given more weight and Chinese-dominated urban areas less - is also generally believed to favor the ruling coalition over opposition parties. There is also the perceived overall lack of transparency surrounding postal ballots sent in from military and police personnel.

Just as important, many Malaysians - having seen no other political parties in power since independence was achieved from Britain in 1957 - believe, rightly or wrongly, that only the ruling coalition is capable of governing and maintaining political stability. This time around, however, there is an air of restiveness in the streets that adds a new element of uncertainty to the upcoming polls.

Some of the issues that have raised public ire include widening economic marginalization, a rising crime rate, and a soaring cost of living. Infringements of minority religious rights, including local authority-backed demolitions of several Hindu temples to make way for development projects, are also expected to be an issue among significant sections of the Indian community. Many Christians and Sikhs, meanwhile, are also peeved over a new government prohibition on other faiths using the word Allah.

The premier's unfulfilled pledges to eradicate corruption and introduce wide-ranging reforms could also come back to haunt him at the polls. For instance, the administration has failed to establish a promised Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission - a key recommendation of a commission of inquiry that looked broadly into police operations and management.

While his administration has made some tentative moves to reform government-linked corporations and the civil service, including the introduction of key performance indicators and other benchmarks, public perception of the judiciary took a sharp knock last year with the release of a politically damaging video.

The unauthorized clip showed a well-connected lawyer discussing judicial appointments and promotions with a top judge in 2001, suggesting political and business interference in the process. In what appeared to be an attempt at damage control, a commission of inquiry with narrow terms of reference is now investigating the video and its politically explosive implications.

With all that baggage, there is only a slim chance that the ruling coalition repeats its landslide performance in 2004, when it won 64% of the popular vote and 90% of all parliamentary seats. Still, given the uneven playing field and the absence of a united opposition front, many analysts believe the best the opposition can hope for is to split the popular vote, wrest control of a couple of state governments and deny the ruling coalition a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Adding to the UMNO-led coalition's troubles, however, is that the run-up to early elections will likely coincide with more public protests and demonstrations and possible harsh government crackdowns. Protests are scheduled for later this month and the second half of February on a broad range of issues.

The complaints range from the economic marginalization of Indian-Malaysians, concerns over rising inflation, and perhaps most significantly, the need for electoral reforms, including the abolition of postal votes, fairer access for all candidates to the media and a revision of the electoral rolls. The longer Abdullah holds out, the greater the possibility that public sentiment against his administration snowballs and translates into less votes for UMNO and its coalition partners.

Anil Netto is a freelance writer based in Penang.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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