Talk of a snap election has regained currency in the past week with some saying it may be as early as this year. JOCELINE TAN examines the reasons behind the renewed excitement but argues that the new Premier may stretch things till August or September 2004.
The chief of Parliament’s Backbenchers’ Club let out his trademark booming laugh when asked whether he too was expecting an early general election.
“You’re definitely not the first person to have asked me the last few days,” said Datuk Mohd Zin Mohamed.
Talk of a snap election has resurfaced – again – the past week among politicians in the ruling parties as well as in the opposition.
“I’ve to admit that we talk about the coming elections all the time. We are always trying to guess when it will be because it affects us directly as politicians and that’s when we are audited by the people,” said Mohd Zin who is also Shah Alam MP.
The latest round of speculation was largely sparked off by the resolution of the MCA political crisis. By the time the new MCA president and his No 2 took their places on Friday evening, the conversation in political circles had begun to swirl around the possibility of early polls.
The MCA is a major partner in the Barisan Nasional and its leadership change has been a huge relief to the ruling coalition which is depending on the non-Malay vote for a convincing mandate this general election.
Barisan leaders feel now that a crucial hurdle has been crossed. Dr Mahathir is clearly tidying up the house, tying up the loose ends, before handing it over to his deputy Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
“He wants to leave behind a government that is as baggage-free as possible. He’s doing his utmost to help Pak Lah inherit a strong Barisan government,” said an Umno official.
The other factor that lent fuel to the election talk was Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s comment last week that his deputy would be leading the next general election. It was not the first time he had said it but it was his most explicit statement on the matter thus far and, somehow, people took it seriously this time.
“It is up to the new Prime Minister (to decide). How would I know? Why do you ask me? It is up to Pak Lah,” he had told reporters.
He also said that Abdullah would be responsible for all preparation work in the Barisan in the run-up to the polls.
The Prime Minister’s statement also set a parameter for the election: that polls would only take place after October when Abdullah assumes the top leadership.
This has in fact been the most logical assumption since it became clear that Dr Mahathir is adamant about sticking to his October retirement date except that there were people outside, and even inside, Umno who simply refused to believe that he would really step down.
Even now, there is still a segment within Umno, albeit an increasingly shrinking group, who still have doubts that the Premier will retire.
“It’s mainly the opposition groups who still insist that Dr Mahathir is not sincere about going and the trouble is that some people tend to fall for the PAS propaganda,” said Kubang Krian Umno division head Tuan Hashim Tuan Yaakob.
Dr Mahathir’s repeated assertions that he is calling it a day seems to have gone over many in the opposition like water off a duck's back.
For instance, many in PAS are predicting that he will hold elections in September. Then again, this is the same group which had earlier predicted that elections would take place in July or August this year, the suggestion being that if Dr Mahathir won, he would proceed to stay on indefinitely.
“My gut feeling is that it’s going to be this year. It’s just not like Dr Mahathir to let go of power like that,” said a sceptical Datuk Dr Hassan Ali, vice-president of PAS.
The stimulus package unveiled last week was also seen by many PAS leaders as an election-oriented move.
“It's not only to help people through SARS and the war. It's aimed at appeasing the civil servants because there's a huge chunk of votes there,” Dr Hassan insisted.
DAP secretary-general Kerk Khim Hock recently asked his party members to be on the alert for a December election.
The mainstay of the DAP leaders has come round to the idea that Abdullah will indeed be the “main driver” of the next general election but they are playing it safe by preparing for an early call.
However, DAP chairman Lim Kit Siang reckons that Abdullah will wait till he completes the traditional “100 days in office” before making the move for a fresh mandate.
The “100 days,” he told party colleagues, will allow Malaysians to get accustomed to having him in the driver's seat.
Many of those who have come round to the idea that Abdullah will lead the next general election are putting their money on a December 2003 or January 2004 election. Abdullah, they say, would want a few months to consolidate his position as Premier before calling for polls.
Others offer purely practical reasons. The fasting month begins in November and end in early December. Polls, they say, are unlikely in December because of the monsoon in the east coast.
“There is nothing to say that we cannot have an election during the fasting month but most of us don't like the idea of all that politicking during the holy month,” said Wanita Umno executive secretary Datuk Faridah Abu Hassan.
Hence, many favour the first quarter of next year.
“That is what I am preparing for in my state,” said one Mentri Besar.
According to an Umno politician from Terengganu: “Pak Lah will want to ride on the goodwill that a new man on the job usually enjoys, but he will also not want to wait till the honeymoon is over.”
One important factor to consider is Sabah which has to go to the ballot box by April.
Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Musa Aman is determined to have a clean sweep of the state. He apparently wants to deliver “a complete feast” to his federal bosses and he thinks he stands a good chance of this if the state polls are held at the same time as the general election.
But those familiar with the leadership insist that there are no compelling reasons at this point to suggest that there will be a snap election.
Pak Lah is likely to consider the precedents set by other Umno presidents when they assumed the national mantle. For instance, Dr Mahathir took over from Tun Hussein Onn in July 1981, but only called for elections a good 10 months later in May 1982.
Dr Mahathir had taken over the Umno leadership when it was still at the height of its Malay glory but he still wanted to command the party and to sort out then existing problems between MCA and Gerakan before he faced the voters.
He also made minimal changes to the Cabinet he inherited. He kept the Hussein Cabinet, making only major changes when he won his own mandate.
Hence, those who think that Abdullah will immediately revamp the Cabinet when he moves in October are likely to be disappointed.
In Abdullah's case, he will also have to choose his deputy. That is the easy part. The tough part will be smoothing the ruffled feathers of the unchosen and, perhaps even tougher, that of the loser's supporters.
The Premier will also wish to put effort into the complicated process of identifying and picking suitable candidates for the election.
Abdullah, said a source close to the leadership, wants to win a convincing mandate and that means going to the polls with a strong and credible team. He would want to be at the vanguard of a Barisan team who will not only command the confidence and respect of the voters but who can inspire and give them hope for the future.
With the leadership change in MCA, Umno members have become acutely aware that their own party leadership structure is skewed towards people in their 50s and older.
Abdullah, said the source, is likely to have a balanced mix of experienced and new faces. There are likely to be more candidates who are in the 40-something age group and to a lesser extent people in their 30s. They will give shape to the second and third echelon in Umno.
It will not be easy assembling such a team. New talent is not all that hard to find but it will be difficult to drop those who have overstayed, those who have controversies trailing their career and those who have not performed. Again, there will be feathers to smoothen and bruised and angry egos to pacify.
Other factors the Barisan leadership would want to be sure about before calling for elections is the situation in states such as Selangor, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu. Kelantan and Terengganu are still firmly under the grip of PAS and the party continues to enjoy a sound presence in Kedah.
Selangor is of some concern to the Barisan leadership because there was a 20% vote swing to the opposition in 1999. Besides, Datuk Khir Toyo has yet to be really tested and it is no secret that PAS has the attention of middle-income Malay professionals and is cashing in on pockets of lower-income areas such as squatter settlements and blue-collar areas in the rapidly growing state.
The Barisan's election dry run will begin in a month or two. The outcome of the dry run will also be a factor in deciding the election date.
Besides, the top Barisan leadership is said to be in the middle of some really hush-hush moves to smooth over relations between MCA and Gerakan in Penang. They want the two parties to reach a new level of relations before the next polls.
In that sense, elections could be held as late as even August or September next year.
All said and done, it is largely the politicians, especially those in the running to be candidates, who are most eager to face the polls and they are to be found on both sides of the fence.
It is possible that many Umno politicians want to clear the general election so that they can move on to the real election, namely, the Umno elections.
Opposition politicians admit in private that they are less sure about how to tackle an election under an Abdullah-led Barisan.
“The predictability factor is not there,” said a PAS MP.
The average voter, they know all too well, is usually more willing to give a new face at the top the benefit of the doubt and that will give the Barisan a decided advantage.
“We have a slight edge if Dr Mahathir is still around,” PAS’ Dr Hassan claimed.
It will be an interesting and exciting election regardless of whether it takes place soon or later.