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Muhyiddin Yassin, would launch a power challenge if Najib falters

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A change of government has never been a real possibility in any Malaysian election in the past 50 years, but the Opposition thinks that this is now in sight.

Non-partisan observers will not go so far, but after the 2008 political tsunami which arrived unnoticed, nothing can be ruled out.

What also gives people pause is that Malaysia’s 13th general election will take place in a highly charged and unpredictable political environment. The stakes are very high for Prime Minister Najib Razak and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and the coalitions they lead.

The political careers of both Datuk Seri Najib and Datuk Seri Anwar will be on the line as anything less than a strong showing for their parties in the election will open up internal rifts that could bring about an early retirement for their leaders.

The general election is also a test of the cohesiveness of both the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and its rival, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance.

Since the last polls in 2008, both coalitions have at times struggled to keep their component parts together and on the same page on issues of race and religion that could potentially pull them apart.

The BN faced the additional stress of having suffered a drubbing in the 2008 polls, losing in the process its long-held two- thirds majority in Parliament. Soon after the debacle, the Sabah Progressive Party pulled out of the BN.

While the BN is likely to enter the next general election with its present lot of 13 component parties, rumours continue to circulate about the loyalty of some of its smaller parties.

The BN cannot afford to lose any more components, as this will leave it in a precarious position in a tight race where every parliamentary seat counts.

For Mr Najib, there are specific personal challenges as well.’It will be a very important general election, especially for the Prime Minister, who took leadership of the country during a time of crisis in his party,’ said political analyst P. Sivamurugan of University Sains Malaysia.

Mr Najib took over the reins of government and the leadership of the UMNO ruling party in April 2009 from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who stepped down after he was widely blamed by party members for the shocking election results the year before.

Najib’s challenges

SIGNIFICANTLY, Mr Najib did not call snap polls soon after the handover; the upcoming general election therefore presents him with two huge related challenges: To claw back the lost seats and to secure his own mandate with an improved performance.

Put in specific terms, this would mean leading the BN in its mission to regain its two-thirds majority or 148 out of a total 222 seats in Parliament. In 2008, it won only 140 seats. It also lost five states – Penang, Kedah, Perak, Selangor and Kelantan – but wrested back Perak with the help of three defectors a year later.

The BN now has 137 parliamentary seats, after a series of defections and by-elections.

Analysts say Mr Najib will be expected by his party to do significantly better than his predecessor by winning more than 140 seats, if not the two-thirds majority, and at least one state back, preferably the wealthy one of Selangor.

Given the stakes for him and the uphill battle, it is not surprising that Mr Najib has pushed hard to solidify his support base and win over fence-sitters. Sweeteners have included direct cash handouts to the poor and a series of political and economic reforms.

Mr Anwar and his people have not been idle either. The Opposition coalition has unveiled its own alternative economic plans, and Mr Anwar has tirelessly worked the ground through almost nightly rallies to convince voters to give the PR their vote.

Technically, Mr Najib can hold off calling an election until next April, but pundits believe he is likely to call it this year while the rosy glow from a credible economic performance still holds.

Speculation went into overdrive recently when the last few months were packed with crowd-pleasing gestures like cash handouts and political reforms. But how imminent the election will be will also have to take into account the fallout from April’s violent and chaotic BERSIH rally.

There is wide consensus that it will not be easy for the BN to regain its dominant position because a significant proportion of the constituencies are mixed seats that are not heavily dominated by any particular race.

Of the BN’s 140 seats, 56 were won with a thin majority of under 10 per cent, and of the PR’s 83 seats, 54 were won with a similarly tight majority. Of these marginal seats, around two-thirds are multi-ethnic seats.

Credibility problems

WHAT this means is that any coalition that wants to govern has to secure the middle ground votes, said opposition Democratic Action Party strategist Liew Chin Tong, also an MP in Opposition-held Penang.

It has to be able to win support across all communities and across all regions in the country, and it can do so only by holding centrist positions and moderate policies.

“I still hold the view that no coalition that wants to govern can afford to have the support of just one community or one region”‘ he said.

The BN will thus have to spread its support base beyond the Malays, and the PR beyond the urban areas. Neither has truly succeeded, leaving both in a position that makes it hard to win decisively.

The PR has tried various measures – from nightly ceramahs (rallies) in rural areas to organising outreach campaigns among different target groups like the East Malaysian natives and settlers of the state-run plantation FELDA who are traditionally loyal to BN. But its success has been patchy.

The PR’s credibility has also taken a bashing from internal bickering over the handling of the delicate issue of the Islamic state. More seriously, it has to deal with public disillusionment over defections, particularly those from Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

The defections of 12 MPs and state assemblymen from its ranks in the last few years had turned the opposition into a target for ridicule, and left doubts in voters’ minds as to whether it deserves a second chance.

These are issues that urban voters, especially the Chinese, may be willing to overlook because of dislike for the BN but it may be a harder sell to the rural non-Chinese voter who tends to be more conservative.

The BN’s problem is of an entirely different nature: Voters remain doubtful about its sincerity in reforms. It does not help that it has embarked on a two-pronged strategy that comes across as inconsistent. On the one hand, it sings an inclusive tune but on the other, UMNO, its leading component, makes no bones about being a stridently race-based party.

Mr Najib stands for being inclusive. Since he launched his 1Malaysia unity slogan, he has made many friendly overtures to the minority communities, and has gone as far as revamping economic policies deemed as favouring the Malays. Yet, he has neglected to curb newspapers and organisations linked to his UMNO party from attacking the Chinese and Christian communities as threats to Malay- Muslim supremacy.

“Najib is banking on his personal leadership to win votes, and it does seem evident that people do like the 1Malaysia concept, whether it’s workable or not,” said Professor Sivamurugan.

At the moment, both the BN and PR appear to have cemented their bonds among members of their traditional support base, and the by-elections from 2008 to last year suggest that this division into rival camps is hardening.

The BN’s strength lies in the rural areas and among civil servants, army and police officers. The Malay vote has swung back to the BN after a 5 per cent swing to the opposition in 2008. Indian support for the BN also seems to have returned.

The PR has held on to the Chinese support and some of the urban vote.But there is an element of uncertainty from the two million new voters added to the electoral rolls since 2008. Most of them will be voters aged below 35. Will their allegiances follow older voters from their respective communities? Or will they be less brand loyal and shift according to circumstances and issues of the day? The answers to that could be critical to how battles are decided, especially in marginal wards.

Careers and coalitions

Mr Najib’s political future rests heavily on how far the electoral outcome improves the BN’s showing in 2008. After all, he came to power with the promise that he would restore the BN to its dominant position.

Many have speculated that his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, who is noticeably more pro-Malay, would launch a power challenge if Mr Najib falters.

Mr Anwar, 66, is in an equally precarious position, as he may not get another shot at the premiership, with the 14th general election due only at the end of this decade.

While he is a popular political leader, repeated surveys have shown that voters are not as keen on him being Prime Minister. This is mostly because of his chequered record when he was an UMNO superstar and Deputy Prime Minister until he was sacked in 1998.

But it is not just about the leaders. Even both their coalitions’ ability to hold together will depend on the electoral outcome. A disastrous result may convince coalition members that their survival is better served by leaving the alliance.

Should the PR fail to make substantial inroads, the restive elements in Parti Islam SeMalaysia may feel that the party had compromised long enough on its Islamic state agenda, and ditch the coalition.

Similarly, should the BN be seen to falter, its Chinese components may feel the need to leave the alliance for their own survival. And East Malaysian parties, which have a history of jumping ship, may decide to do so again.

So, what is at stake in the next general election could be the entire political landscape in Malaysia.

For over 50 years, the BN had been firmly in control, despite the best efforts of assorted opposition parties. A dent was made in the 2008 elections. What happens in the coming one could have serious repercussions beyond the seats totted up on election day. – carolynh@sph.com.sg