NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
The art of prediction is such that one can only really predict things after they have happened. So goes a wise saying by the French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco. Be that as it may, nothing will stop Malaysians from engaging in our favourite pastime — trying to predict the timing of the 13th general election.
For more than a year now, we have all been living in constant anticipation of an election that has been perpetually “around the corner.” It has even come to the point where no politician in this country is able to get through a single day without someone asking, “So when will the elections be?” Some have even fallen into the habit of continually predicting one to be just three months away, a cycle that has been renewed five times in the last 15 months.
I too am unable to escape this quintessential question that is thrown at me time and again. In tandem with the progression of current affairs, my answers have also undergone constant evolvement.
However, whenever I am asked when should the general election be held, I have held one constant response for more than a year: that it should have been held last year, in concurrence with the Sarawak state election.
In fact, I had been so convinced that the elections were going to be held together that it was a real surprise — and a pleasant one if I were to be honest — when the prime minister decided not to hold it simultaneously.
In my opinion, Najib Razak missed a great opportunity to deal a striking blow following a tumultuous year-end in 2010 for Pakatan Rakyat, especially with the coalition reeling in the aftermath of Keadilan’s infamous party elections and the departure of Zaid Ibrahim, then still commanding a modicum of respect.
In any case, there is no use speculating on what could have been. Looking to the future, the prime minister knows that his options are limited. The window from now until automatic dissolution on April 29, 2013 is getting smaller by the minute. And so, based on a confluence of factors that I will elaborate upon, I am now almost certain that we can realistically expect a June 2012 date for the next general election.
Firstly, every economist’s advice, including the ones whispering to the prime minister, concurs that sooner is better than later for the incumbent regime. This is based on an expected slowdown in global growth due to the debt crisis in Europe and a deflating American economy.
Presumably, one would also want to take advantage of the economic painkillers injected by the government in the form of the BR1M scheme, the recently announced EPF dividend of a decade-high six per cent and of course the expected windfall for FELDA settlers from the listing of FELDA Global Ventures Holdings due in May.
In the coming months, we can also expect the announcement of a slew of mega-projects encompassing five regions (northern, eastern, southern, Sabah and Sarawak) as a result of the five “corridors and cities” labs conducted by PEMANDU at the end of last year.
Secondly, logistical reasons make the second half of 2012 an unappealing option. Beginning with the fasting month of Ramadan starting in mid-July, followed by a month-long Raya period from August to September, and then the Haj season which culminates at the end of October, the Deepavali festival right after that and finally the monsoon period crippling half the country by then, it would be a logistical nightmare to slot in a month of electioneering.
The only time a general election has been called during the year-end period was in 1999 as the then-prime minister needed desperately to avert the gazetting of 650,000 new voters registered during the height of the Reformasi era. This situation does not exist today.
Thirdly, on the evening of September 15, 2011, the prime minister made a promise on “live” television to carry out sweeping reforms including the lifting of multiple emergency ordinances, reviews to the Police Act, the abolishment of the Internal Security Act (ISA), and the amendment of other laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA).
In addition, he also subsequently announced the formation of a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on electoral reform as well as the amendment of the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA).
While some of the promised reforms have been delivered, half-baked as they were, the key reforms such as the ISA repeal and amendments to the PPPA and UUCA have yet to be tabled. In addition, the PSC’s recommendations on electoral reform will only be presented to Parliament in early April. This makes the next parliamentary sitting starting March 12, 2012 a crucial one.
One might then argue that dissolution could occur immediately after the reforms are passed by the Dewan Rakyat. This is a fallacy, because any Bill passed by the Lower House must also be ratified by the Senate before it can be sent for royal assent. Now, the Senate is due to sit from April 21 to May 10, and so unless the prime minister isn’t serious about delivering on a promise made to millions of Malaysians on the eve of Malaysia Day, a dissolution before the full ratification process is complete is out of the picture.
Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, it must not be forgotten that besides the 13th general election, Umno is also due for an election that many, especially within the party, would argue is even more critical than the former. After all, the president of Umno has hitherto always been the prime minister of the country.
Having already been postponed for 18 months, the Umno party election is due within months of the end of this parliamentary term. Hence, holding the general election later than June would interfere with the elaborate, divisive and drawn-out affair of an Umno election that typically consumes every level of the behemothic party from branch to division to the general assembly itself.
The Umno election is at least a four- to five-month affair involving massive internal politicking and the dispensation of enormous resources. The only way to postpone it is to amend the constitution via an emergency general assembly, and any attempt to do so would be greatly resisted by vested interests within the party.
As every division head and supreme council member runs the risk of losing their party positions, and hence their candidacies as well as the power to control and disburse funds from the election war chest, it would only be natural for them to push for a general election first.
It was the same scenario in the months preceding March 2008, when the then-prime minister was unable to convince his party to hold their own elections before the general election. There is nothing to suggest that the current prime minister would be able to balk this trend.
Thus, an election held later than June would mean the prospect of two resource-intensive elections back-to-back; unlikely to be a pretty sight and definitely not what the prime minister wants.
Having considered all the points above, I am therefore reasonably certain that we are in for a mid-year pre-Ramadan election. In any case, if I am proved to be wrong, I will simply revert to the three-month cycle routine. After all, even the prime minister himself said recently that if one made enough guesses, one is bound to be correct.