Malaysia election finally nears
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Malaysia election finally nears

The long wait is nearly over, but did Najib delay too long? asks Asia Sentinel’s John Berthelsen

With the Lunar New Year out of the way and after months – years, in fact – of speculation, it appears that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak will finally call national elections, probably for the second week in April, amid speculation that he may have let it go too long.

Under Malaysia’s parliamentary system, inherited from Britain’s 127-year rule, the prime minister can dissolve parliament any time he feels his chances are good of winning a majority. There has been speculation for two years over when an election would be called. But Najib put it off while he struggled to put his touted Economic Transformation Program (ETP) reforms in place and to let some of the myriad scandals around him cool off.

For the prime minister, there are dangers on several sides. The common wisdom is that he must not just preserve the Barisan Nasional’s parliamentary majority in the 222 seat Dewan Rakyat, but must pull more than the 76 parliamentary seats that the United Malays National Organization won under his luckless predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in the disastrous 2008 election. He must also preserve more than 125 total seats for the component parties of the Barisan.

(READ MORE: Malaysia’s opposition announces election promises)

If not, his detractors say, he is likely to be blindsided from the right of his own party by forces aligned with ultra-Malay nationalists determined to preserve ketuanan Melayu, or Malay ethnic and cultural dominance and sovereignty. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, a Malay nationalist, is commonly believed to be after Najib’s job although UMNO stalwarts deny it. The state political parties in Sabah and Sarawak, whose allegiance has always been slippery, are also said to be ready to opt for the opposition if the vote is close and the price is right.

Najib, an economist, has periodically threatened the ketuanan Melayu philosophy with his attempts to reverse some of the Malay privileges through the ETP’s economic liberalization. That has resulted in loud demonstrations led by the ultra-Malay NGO Perkasa and its leader Ibrahim Ali, backed implicitly by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Although there have been no reliable polls, many political observers are predicting the closest election since Malaysia became an independent nation in 1957. Although the latest Merdeka Centre poll puts Najib’s approval rating at a strong 62 percent – a figure western politicians would kill for – approval ratings for UMNO, the largest ethnic political party in the ruling coalition, have fallen below 50 percent. The party is widely perceived to be riddled with corruption and cronyism to the point where it is crippling the economy.

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