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Tuesday April 10, 2012

Election fatigue sets in

The power to call elections is a double-edged sword. It’s not something that leaders should rush into, but in many cases hesitation and indecision can also be fatal.

FEELING tired, exhausted or listless? Then you must be part of a cast of tens of thousands – including potential candidates, staffers, journalists and officials – who are going to be involved in the upcoming 13th general election.

Thinking that the polls would be in March, we’ve all worked ourselves into a frenzy since the New Year. In fact, you could say that the entire nation has been on tenterhooks for the past few months – assailed by a stream of issues: NFC, Civil Service pay, the Bayan Mutiara mosque and so on.

Now we’re just plain disappointed – downcast by thought that the voting is fading ever further into the future!

Indeed, “election fatigue” has set in.

Unlike in a Presidential system where election dates are fixed, the Westminster Parliamentary system we’ve inherited from the British invests the Prime Minister with the authority to dissolve the Legislature and call for an election.

This is an enormously powerful tool and a major advantage. It allows one man (and his advisers) the opportunity to determine the timing of a nation’s electoral battles.

Over the decades – whether in Malaysia or the UK, Premiers have waited for the best moment, lavishing voters with election “goodies” and a series of upbeat messages.

Times have not changed. But the power to call elections is a double-edged sword: go too soon or wait too long and the momentum could well turn against even the most savvy of leaders.

A fascinating recent example was the UK’s immediate past Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

While the dour Scotsman had none of the charm of his predecessor Tony Blair or the aristocratic ease of his successor David Cameron, he was probably Britain’s most technocratic and intellectually accomplished leader in recent times.

Taking over from a British public weary of Blair’s pizzazz in 2007, Brown’s battered New Labour government experienced a surge of support. Unfortunately, he squandered several opportunities to call early elections.

Brown could have, for instance, gone to the polls immediately after he took over from Blair in 2007. At that point, Labour had a significant lead in the polls. Morever, Cameron’s authority among the Tories was shaky at best.

Alternatively, he could have called for elections during the height of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, when the sky seemed to be falling on capitalism and Brown seemed to be one of few leaders standing, sentinel-like, against further catastrophe.

Losses to Labour’s parliamentary majority would, of course, have been expected in either case, but the end result may very well have been Labour’s continuance in office.

Instead, Brown dithered and delayed. We’ll probably never know the reasons why, but it’s very likely that he desperately wanted to be able to win big, to enhance his mandate and in so doing, prove that he can come out tops in his famous partnership and rivalry with Blair.

So on Brown went, taxing the talents of his New Labour spin-doctors and the patience of the British electorate to the limit.

But without an election win, there was little Brown could do about the factional in-fighting and policy atrophy that was causing support to haemorrhage from his government in the first place.

Every week seemed to bring new scandals or revelations of factionalism that damaged Labour’s credibility without relief.

By the time elections were called in April 2010, a clearly weary British public could scarcely be excited about the polls despite the countless fancy speeches and campaign stops cleverly disguised as policy announcements.

At the same time, the fact that the 2010 general election produced a hung Parliament indicated that a Conservative victory was by no means inevitable.

Still, by waiting, Brown exhausted the goodwill of the electorate and set the stage for the end of the New Labour experiment. It seemed like the academic-turned-premier kept waiting for that right moment, but failed to realise that his window for opportunity had already come and gone.

Gordon Brown is therefore a case study of how the power to dissolve a legislature is a double-edged sword. As I’ve said before, it’s not something that leaders should rush into, but in many cases hesitation and indecision can also be fatal.

History will be kind to Gordon Brown as a champion of social justice and for his decisive action during the Global Financial Crisis. One wonders what lessons Malaysian leaders would take from Brown’s experience. As I said, “election fatigue” can be a dangerous condition, especially for incumbents.

Still, this tukang cerita is prepared for any eventuality. Whether sooner or later, the bahang pilihanraya is definitely upon us!

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