Agenda Daily

A budget to woo the voters

ykadirxWhile Budget 2012 dished out the goodies to appease the rafryaf for the impending general election, there is no guarantee that the voters will vote for the ruling coalition, as history has shown.

I WAS, AT FIRST, LOST FOR WORDS TO APPROPRIATELY and intelligently brand the Finance Minister’s 2012 Budget. In this era of branding, label is the key to selling. So say the branding gurus.

One has to be prim and proper to avoid being branded contrarian. And no commentator wants to be seen as unintelligent.

But when I opened The Sunday Star on Oct 9, my dilemma was solved. Its Editor-in-Chief, Datuk Wong Chun Wai, described Datuk Sen Mohd Najib Abdul Razak’s budget as ‘goodies with polls in mind’.

‘It’s clear that the 2012 Budget, which was presented by the Prime Minister last week, is the strongest build-up to the next general election,’ said Wong.

He went on to allude that the momentum is in favour of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN). That’s a brave statement, given the fact that the non-Malay votes, the Chinese in particular, are not expected to swing back to the Government.

Another senior commentator of the MCA-controlled newspaper, Baradan Kuppusamy, thought that the budget was ‘good handouts before the election’, adding that the Prime Minister is hoping to draw support with the goodies as the battle for the next general election looms.

But one highly knowledgeable source told a private seminar in Kuala Lumpur recently that nothing the Prime Minister does would swing the Chinese votes. He reckoned that as much as 80% of Chinese voters will side the Democratic Action Party.

The Prime Minister, who also holds the powerful finance portfolio, did indeed make some very generous handouts — anything from pacifying the Parliamentarians with a promise to revise their allowances and benefits, which has since been dropped on account of objection by the Opposition, to forcing employers to fork out an additional 1 % in Employees’ Provident Fund contributions in favour of the workers, RM5O million to assist army personnel serving less than 21 years and not entitled to pension, RM500 million more to upgrade camps and barracks and full exemption from excise duty and sales tax for taxi owners buying locally made vehicles.

There are monetary gifts, fiscal exemptions and loan facilities for Muslim pilgrims, school and mini bus operators, low-income families, the poor and disabled, the Orang Ash, pensioners and women.

UNDERSTANDABLY, the government- and party-owned mainstream media is full of praise for the Finance Minister not only because of the budget, but equally so because he is also the Prime Minister.

The buck stops with him. Therefore, it is hard not to consider the 2012 Budget as an election budget, more so when Mohd Najib is hardpressed to seek his own mandate as Prime Minister.

A critic of the Prime Minister, a former Pahang Umno State Assemblyman, who blogs under the pseudonym of ‘SakmongkolAK47’ rubbishes Mohd Najib’s budget as hardly transformational.

In his blog entry, he wrote: ‘Here is the reason why PM Najib isn’t heeding the unsolicited talking-tos and advice of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He has that one tool which he thinks can earn the loyalty and allegiance of the people who will ensure the BN stays in power — the Budget.

It’s themed as a transformative budget. The only transformative feature in a budget described to induce that effect, is converting a cashless person to a person with some cash through a sudden but temporary windfall. The jaga, who is a former home guard (personnel), will get a RM3,000 windfall after which he remains a jaga to sustain a living.’

Clearly, the budget is not transformational in the manner that we have become accustomed to since Datuk Sen Idris Jala was made the Prime Minister’s Economic Czar.

That is not the kind of transformation the Prime Minister is aiming for in crafting the transformation can wait, but the Prime Minister has to transform enough number of doubters and fence-sitters if he hopes to improve the BN’s fortune at the coming general election.

That has to be foremost on the Prime Minister’s mind. Sooner or later, he has to seek his own mandate instead of carrying on with Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s 2008 mediocre mandate.

The speculation is, Mohd Najib may not go beyond the second half of next year to call a general election. The longer he waits, the more difficult the situation becomes.

Despite forecasting a 5% to 6% growth for the coming year, the positive impact on the population in general is not likely to be much, given mounting inflation and the bleak global food outlook.

So, Mohd Najib has to count on his budgetary handouts to soothe the people in order to gain a better mandate than his predecessor, failing which his position as Prime Minister and Umno President may come under pressure.

Having been a passive participant in hounding Abdullah out of the Prime Minister’s Office and as Umno President in 2009, Mohd Najib has to be mindful of the same sword of Damocles that cut short Abdullah’s rule should he fail to improve the BN mandate. Umno does not take kindly to a party President who loses at the polls.

Another strong indication that the 2012 Budget is an election budget is its lack of major tax proposals, except a plan to increase the real property gains tax (RPGT), which is laudable, and the absence of the so-called sin tax usually imposed on gaming, liquor and tobacco.

Since the Pr!rre Minister had chosen to stay on as Finance Minister, a post that combines power and blame, Mohd Najib has to be willing to harvest the squall from the wind that he sows as much as the bumper harvest he is hoping for at the polls.

BUT as things are, budget handouts and goodies alone will not guarantee victory. As the rural PAS supporters like to say, They give us batik, we wear the batik, they give us rice, we eat the rice, but votes are secret’, and invariably, they vote for their own party.

Mohd Najib’s biggest challenge is balancing the racial and geographical demands of the voters, starting with Umno’s own supporters, who left the party in droves during the 2008 general election. Umno has to get back the 10% to 15% Malay voters who defected to Pakatan Rakyat.

Most of them were Umno members and supporters. They were utterly put off by the hijacking of Abdullah’s Administration by members of his family and a handful of associates. Any sign of a similar malady afflicting Mohd Najib’s Administration could have an equally devastating, if not worse, effect on Umno and the BN.

If, in the coming months, he succeeds in reining in the ambitious and overbearing members of his inner circle, some Malay defectors may return to Umno’s fold. Most Malays would rather live with the certainty of BN’s mediocrity than the uncertainty of a new government.

Election goodies and financial handouts work better with the rural Malays, who are still dependent on the Government and believe in being grateful, but less so with their urban cousins.

The latter, like the rural PAS supporters, will accept the batik and the rice given by the BN, but will not vote for the grand old coalition because they know the batik and the rice are paid for with taxpayers’ money. That was what happened in the Malay-dominated urban seats like Lembah Pantai, Titiwangsa and Bandar Tun Razak in the last general election.

Also, the urban Malay voters, especially the young and educated, are susceptible to negative perception of the BN in such matters as corruption, opulence, wastage of public funds and interference by family members. These groups shun the mainstream media and tend to rely on the Internet- based media.

BUT goodies and handouts are not expected to work with the better-off Chinese. Being urban dwellers and traders, they do not really depend on Government handouts.

They will, however, benefit from the cash injection promised in the 2012 Budget, as most recipients would spend the extra income at Chinese-owned shops.

Not even the generous financial support for Chinese education and culture is likely to sway them away from the DAP.

The Chinese agenda is no longer confined to the economy, and they are no longer satisfied with playing second fiddle to Umno via the MCA and Gerakan. They have tasted real power by throwing their lot with the DAP, and that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

Having successfully installed a DAP-led government in Penang and enabling the party to play a major role in the PKR-led Selangor Government, the Chinese are not likely to let go of this newly acquired bargaining chip. Despite the hype, the MCA, Gerakan and the MIC are not likely to deliver sufficient non-Malay votes to turn the tables on the DAP and PKR.

Crazy as it may sound, the only hope for Umno to co-op the chinese support is to consider working with the DAP, as the Alliance did with Gerakan after losing Penang to the upstart party in 1969. Admittedly, the DAP is a harder nut to crack than Gerakan. Alternatively, Umno has to do all it can to co-op its archrival PAS, as the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein did in 1974.

Whether he is ready or not, Mohd Najib could be running out of options. Dr Mahathir has said the BN is not yet ready. Except for one or two lone vcices, there isn’t a strong rebuttal of his statement, understandably so because Mohd Najib is counting on Dr Mahathir’s unequivocal support during the coming polls.

The Prime Minister has to make a decision soon. He has to strike while the iron is still hot. The longer he waits, the less would the effects of the handouts and goodies be. As Dr Mahathir famously said, the Malays forget easily. A month or two down the road, they may have forgotten about the budget giveaways.-5/11/2011

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