Wednesday, October 3, 2007

In no hurry for polls

The snap election everyone has been expecting may not happen. The Prime Minister is in no rush to seek a fresh mandate and may even go the full term while the young Turks in Umno want to take on Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in the polls.

ACOUPLE of days after the controversial video made the news, the Prime Minister decided to see for himself what the fuss was about.

Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi sat through the fuzzy eight-minute video of a top lawyer purportedly discussing the appointment of judges with a senior judge. Then he went through the transcripts of the tape. His aides have been tight-lipped about his reaction after the viewing but it is clear by now that he thought it serious enough to warrant some answers.

The Government moved with remarkable speed, and on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced an independent panel of inquiry to look into the issue.

The video, reportedly recorded in 2002, has serious implications for the reputation of the Malaysian judiciary even if it does not directly implicate the Abdullah administration. But the swift response by the government has been correct as well as strategic. The message was: we have nothing to hide, we are going to be transparent about this and we want to know the truth as much as everyone else.

When Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim released the video a fortnight ago, many had thought it to be a political bomb for Abdullah. Political sources suggested that the Parti Keadilan Rakyat de facto leader had been holding on to the video for a while now, waiting for the right time to go public with it. It was quite a coup and Anwar must have also thought that the general election was very close. In fact, if his party had its way, elections would have been over by now because Anwar had been predicting that Abdullah would call for elections in August to ride on the 50th Merdeka mood.

But August has come and gone and many opposition figures now claim it will be in November. Others say February, after the Chinese New Year. Speculation about an early election had been based on the assumption that the Barisan Nasional would call for elections before April next year to prevent Anwar from contesting. His conviction of corruption bars him from electoral politics till then. The assumption may no longer be current and there was some hint from the top man himself.

A day before the Prime Minister flew off to New York, he had brushed off questions about elections saying: "That one, wait first. We still have a mandate of two years." Not many are aware of this but the young Turks in Umno want to see Anwar contest the polls and be defeated. This is the group now making their way up the greasy pole of politics and they are adamant that the polls date should not revolve around one person.

"I believe we should take him on, there's nothing to worry about. The general election will depend on a host of factors, none of which is related to him. It will not be based on whether or not he can contest," said Putrajaya Umno Youth chief Zaki Zahid.

Federal Territory Umno Youth chief Datuk Norza Zakaria said: "For people of my generation, Anwar is someone from the past. His party supporters are the ones creating a situation, applying pressure for an early election." Others like Umno Youth secretary Datuk Rahman Dahlan said that blocking Anwar would only perpetuate the myth that he is powerful and a threat to Umno. "Instead of over-estimating his strength, we should fight him politically," said Rahman. Besides, it makes sense to tie him down to a seat during the polls instead of enjoying the freedom to roam the country to campaign for the opposition.

Or as Umno Youth deputy chief Khairy Jamaluddin said: "It doesn't matter if he contests or not. He is fast descending into irrelevance.

But if you ask me, it's best that he is beaten in the general election. We're not scared of him and it's best to defeat him once and for all. "But what's the rush? I don't understand all the fuss and speculation. Pak Lah has one and a half years left in his mandate. If elections are held this year, this will be the shortest-lived government in our electoral history. The argument about the economy doing well also doesn't hold. The economy is not the only factor that should be considered."

Perhaps the most gung-ho remark came from Ketereh MP Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad who said Umno was prepared to face Anwar even in Kota Baru, a parliamentary seat which PAS has offered to PKR. "God willing, if he is eligible, we'll fight him and finish him off. If he cannot contest, then hard luck. And if he wins and goes to Parliament, I will be the first to engage him in debate," said Alwi Some like Datuk Reezal Merican Naina Merican have even aired their views to the Prime Minister. Reezal, political secretary to Abdullah in his capacity as Finance Minister I, had frankly suggested during a discussion that elections be held after April because "there is nothing to fear about Anwar."

"We should level up with him. We faced him in Ijok; he lost. He could not take on Datuk Seri Najib even though he camped there day and night. He is not a big factor, that's why he is banking on issues popular with the Chinese," said Reezal. Basically, the young Turks are saying that setting the date of election should be based on the bigger picture, particularly on how well the government has delivered on its 2004 election promises.

Abdullah's team coasted to power promising great things but some feel that the delivery, especially on issues like corruption and governance, has been more thunder than rain. The Prime Minister was at his weakest when under attack from the very man who had picked him as his successor. He went through a horrible time but he held his tongue and even though relations between him and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad have not fully mended, he has survived the ordeal. Stretching his mandate will not cost him but will buy him more time to see his policies take shape and bear fruit.

As everyone knows, Anwar's target has not been Abdullah but Najib. In fact, many thought it was Najib who was most uneasy about Anwar contesting the polls. But according to a member of Najib's inner circle, whatever apprehension Najib may have harboured about Anwar is now water under the bridge, especially after the Ijok polls. "That was a moral victory for Najib. He is very comfortable about his place in the party and government. Where Najib is concerned, we have to look at the relationship he enjoys with the PM – it could not be better. Rarely has the No. 1 and No. 2 enjoyed such a comfort level and shared aims.

"We also have to look at his standing in Umno. His grassroots support needs no elaboration and it's ridiculous to suggest that he is afraid of Anwar," said the inner circle member.

The influence of the Umno young Turks on the party leadership remains to be seen. But Anwar, who turned 60 last month, had better get prepared to face what might be the toughest general election of his political career. He must have been on a natural high this week because he became a first-time grandfather on Monday and, two days later, a national inquiry was formed in response to his video exposé.

For months, the April dateline has been a real hindrance for the ruling coalition. Striking out the date as a factor will free the Prime Minister to allow his policies and programmes to take shape until such time that he finds what other Premiers before him have described as "the inspiration" to call for polls.

"Some people want it later, some sooner. The PM listens to everybody but whatever he decides, we will go with him," said Reezal.


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