Malaysia Gears Up for Early Poll

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Malaysia Gears Up for Early Poll

Has recent UNMO success raised the likelihood that Prime Minister Najib Razak will call an early election?

Speculation that Malaysians will be heading into an early poll is peaking after the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) seized the initiative at two recent by-elections.

As mentioned previously in ASEAN Beat, the UMNO had to do well in the November 4 by-elections in Galas, in the West Malaysian State of Kelantan and Batu Sapi in Sabah on East Malaysia. And they did. In Galas, the party that has dominated Malaysian politics since Independence in 1957, held off a push from the pro-Islamic Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and fared well among its grassroots constituency. A similar performance was registered in Batu Sapi, which fell vacant last month, after the sitting member Edmund Chong Ket Wah crashed his Kawasaki Superbike into a Mercedes and died.

The UMNO chose Edmund’s wife, Linda, to succeed him. It was a clever, if emotive, decision and pushed the opposition parties onto the back foot, from where they failed to capitalize on a local wave of growing anti-UMNO discontent at the ballot box.

As a result, Prime Minister Najib Razak is brimming with confidence, sending the detractors in his own party scurrying for cover and is now primed for a national poll on a date of his choosing.

According to UMNO insiders, Razak’s reasons for calling an unprecedented early election are many. A mandate to undertake urgent economic reforms, factional fighting within the UMNO and pending state elections in Sarawak have all been cited as factors that justify an imminent poll. However, the real driver is Najib’s desire to stamp his own authority on government, which he inherited from predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who performed poorly at the 2008 general election. At the time, the UMNO won but with a heavily reduced majority. Najib took the helm but has since faced a growing chorus of critics, particularly after he raised the prospect of repealing laws that favor native Malays in business and many other aspects Malaysian life.

Few believe he is willing to wait until the next poll falls due in 2013 and see his latest budget—sold to the public as big spending on big projects for a big Malaysia—as little more than pre-electioneering. Headlining the $53 billion annual budget are populist plans to build a 100-storey tower. It’s the type of project that is already building up opposition among intellectuals, who who'd rather see the money spent with a little more forethought than on another large concrete block.

But it’s exactly these types of projects that deliver votes from ordinary Malays, as proven by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who built the Petronas Towers, the world’s largest from 1998 to 2004.

Expectations are for an election to be held after Chinese New Year, between March and June 2011.