NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
The Malaysian political scene is living on frayed nerves right now. Every plan, strategy or decision has to take into account the possibility of an election that may be called at any time.
Even holiday plans cannot be made.
There are all kinds of speculation about when D-Day will be, and corresponding theories to substantiate the arguments. However, rather than attempting to add to the multitude of guesstimates out there, I would like to postulate that the timing of the 13th General Election will in fact reveal the underlying currents of the power struggle within Umno.
There is a clear tension developing within the walls of the Putra World Trade Centre. In arecent address to party members during Umno’s 65th anniversary celebrations, Prime Minister Najib Razak made a sharp call for an end to factionalism and to unite in the face of the coming general election.
He also ended with a plea for loyalty and to accept the choices of the party leadership. Internal discord is neither new nor unusual, but how does this fit into my hypothesis?
A quick study of Najib’s political philosophy over his three-decade-old career would reveal pragmatism, cautiousness and an aversion towards risk. In short, he is not one to make a bold or rash decision. His has been a career that can only be defined by the phrase “toeing the line”, having always done what was expected of him.
Throughout his three decades in politics, he has filled every required role and climbed every required step before successfully summiting at the pinnacle with nary a scrape on his political gloves. Not once did he have to challenge anyone for a major party post.
An MP at the age of 22 (an uncontested win), he went on to fill the positions of deputy minister, menteri besar, and later took on the ministerial portfolios of youth, education and defence before being raised to deputy prime minister.
At the party level, he played the conservative and insular Youth leader, going so far as to utter rabid and racially inflammatory rhetoric during a party rally — bold for sure, but unremarkable considering the gallery he was playing to and the context in which it took place — and then quietly assumed his place in the senior hierarchy as a vice president before naturally progressing to deputy and then president.
Some may call it playing safe, others may label it playing smart. Yet for what may appear to be political reticence, one cannot deny that it has been nothing short of a winning strategy.
Which is all the more reason why he would be loathe to attempt a different tack. It would make no sense, especially to his mind, to attempt a new and uncharted course when the one he has known, tried and tested for over 30 years has never failed him once.
To better understand the situation facing the prime minister, one has to understand what the stakes are. He is currently prime minister by default, having never secured a personal mandate from the electorate.
More importantly, he has had no major political victory to speak of besides the Perak coup of 2009. His foothold at the summit is therefore not as firm as he would like, especially with an ever-restive retinue of would-be successors eyeing his seat.
Najib’s father, Abdul Razak, had succeeded to the premiership in similar fashion, but quickly set in motion an ambitious agenda that resulted in what was hitherto the Alliance/Barisan Nasional’s greatest victory in the 1974 General Elections.
The defeat of 1969 was immediately buried and his legitimacy was unquestioned, both as prime minister and as Umno president. Najib, therefore, knows that he has to repeat such a success in order to cement his own claim to the pulpit.
In today’s political scenario, there are only two realistic deliverables that would accord Najib his much-needed legitimacy: regaining two-thirds majority, or at the very least winning back Selangor, the richest and most developed state in Malaysia. Both would make him untouchable, but either one would be good enough.
And therein lies the reason why he cannot risk calling a snap election in the immediate future, as doing so would run the very risky possibility that Selangor may not dissolve concurrently.
If this happens, then Najib will be left with only one result to deliver — and the more difficult one at that. With the results of the Sarawak state election still fresh in mind, it would clearly not be wise to risk such an action.
Given that the Barisan Nasional’s current mandate will only expire in March 2013, Najib knows that he is under no undue pressure to call for an election. It would be much safer to wait it out, in part to ensure his machinery is well-primed and in part to ensure the possibility of delivering one if not both of the said objectives.
On the flip side, however, recent events seem to indicate that an election is very much around the corner. The two-pronged strategy of Malay unity and Malay scaremongering is being perpetrated with the kind of unsubtle co-ordination which leaves one with little doubt that Umno is the proverbial Rome to which all roads lead. But if that is true, then it is also clear that Najib is not the only conductor of the Umno orchestra.
This parochial strategy is one that practically alienates the non-Malay electorate. If their plan is to maximise Malay votes while discounting the others, then there is a great need to strike while the iron still smoulders.
Waiting too long would necessitate newer and more elaborate issues. With the “Anwar Ibrahim” video scandal still fresh and the Opposition leader’s trial soon coming to an end, and with the great drive on Malay and Islamic issues being blatantly pushed forward by Umno-linked NGOs, blogs and the mainstream media, they certainly can’t afford to wait.
But Najib of course, is not to be outdone. Seen in this context, the surprising revival of the GST and the recent increase in sugar and fuel prices may be the prime minister’s way of stalling the polls. Even those clamouring for an early election to “cut their losses” can surely see votes disappearing with every rise in the cost of living, Malay or otherwise.
There is a loud noise emanating from the Putra World Trade Centre, and if it appears to be alternating between a symphony and a cacophony, it may be because there are two conductors trying to direct one disorderly orchestra. And whether or not music will triumph over noise, only time, or in this case timing, will tell.