Agenda Daily

BN'S election poser

ykadirxIt would be unwise to rush into holding a general election at a time when it would seem that the ruling  coalition’s parties and their supporting machinery are not ready to work as a team.
AS TALK OF AN EARLY GENERAL ELECTION CONTINUES, a clearer trend is emerging. It concerns Prime Minister Datuk Sen Mohd Najib Abdul Razak’s approach to fighting the battle for the hearts and minds of the voters.
The Umno President and Barisan Nasional Chairman appears to be banking on his popularity to lift the ruling coalition out of the doldrums and win him a personal mandate. This is neither new nor extraordinary. All past Malaysian Prime Ministers had harnessed their personal popularity when holding their inaugural general elections.               

But Mohd Najib is in a less enviable position than his predecessors. Having benefited from the hounding out of his unpopular immediate predecessor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mohd Najib is caught in an awkward position.
He inherited Abdullah’s weak mandate a year into the five- year term of the current Parliament. Although his unexpected early rise to the top job was greeted with relief by the public who had had enough of Abdullah’s moribund five years, Mohd Najib found himself in a dilemma.
He inherited a weak government and relying on Abdullah’s mediocre mandate would not help him strengthen his position. He has to seek his own mandate as quickly as is practicable. But to dissolve Parliament so soon after the general election might not go down well with the people.
Already the Opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has threatened to defy any order to dissolve the state assemblies in the four states that it controls.
Furthermore, several Umno veterans have warned Mohd Najib of the risk of holding a general election any time soon.
Since taking over the reins in early 2009, Mohd Najib has worked hard to strengthen Umno and the BN, and introduced a package of policies and programmes aimed at transforming the economy.
But the skepticism about the government and the BN is so deep-rooted that some of his policies, programmes, projects and the generous servings of slogans are greeted with an even deeper cynicism.
The results of by-elections since 2008 and the outcome of April’s Sarawak state election have sent mixed signals. While the Umno-led BN did well in the Malay-majority rural and suburban areas, the grand coalition did badly in the mixed areas.
Despite the noisy claims by the MCA and the MIC that they are on the road to recovery, the non-Malay votes continue to drift in the direction of the Opposition PR.
The starkest rejection of the BN by the Chinese occurred in Sarawak, where its BN Chinese-based state party, the Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP), was delivered a crippling blow by the DAP.
Granted that the BN under Mohd Najib is stronger, the improvement might not be sufficient to guarantee him a sound mandate.
The outcome of the Sarawak state election serves as a sobering reminder to the Prime Minister of the seething discontent among voters.
There are some in the BN who are banking on the perceived weakness of PR to provoke the defection of Chinese voters. Again, the outcome of the Sarawak state election showed that they remain unaffected by the squabbling in PR.
The Chinese are tactical voters. They are far less emotional than the Malay voters. On several occasions in the past, the Chinese threw their weight behind the BN when Umno was perceived to be weak. They did so to thwart Pas. They could do the same, but this time in favour of PR to ensure that the DAP remains the leading party of the alternative coalition.
Given these variables, the seeming rise in the Prime Minister’s popularity and personal standing might not be sufficient to guarantee the BN a bigger mandate, which he sorely needs to entrench himself as Prime Minister and Umno President.

THEN, there are the bread-and-butter issues that will influence the voters’ decision far more than the Prime Minister’s popularity. The masses are more concerned with such issues as subsidy cuts and spiraling consumer prices.
The people are unhappy and the Opposition is exploiting bit of it. They are already blaming inflation on the policies of the government, in particular, the gradual withdrawal of the petroleum subsidy. The issue of price increases has become so sensitive~ When online portal Malaysiakini broke the news on May 27 that an electricity tariff hike had been approved, the Energy, Green Technology and Water Ministry issued a statement that a review of the gas price and electricity tariff was still being fine-tuned, It subsequently recalled the statement but re-issued it later.
Even Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), which in recent years has been the harbinger of good news, is having second thoughts about its stance on inflation.
Only days after telling the Press that the central bank was maintaining its inflation rate projection at between 2.5% and 3.5% this year, the Governor, Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, on May 23 said the rate might be revised upwards.
The media quoted her as saying that the Central Bank might have to raise its forecast on inflation and adjust the growth projection for the year, if prices of fuel, electricity and food items increase more sharply than anticipated.
The Statistics Department announced that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for April stood at 3.2% from a year ago, driven by higher food and transportation prices.
Given the profiteering  tendency of the retail trade,the price rise is no longer an if’ but rather how high . and how fast. On the very same day that Zeti hinted . on an upward revision of the inflation rate, the Federation of Livestock Farmers of Malaysia hit out at retailers for jacking up the price of broiler chicken.
The head of the Federation’s broiler unit, Kwei Yew Tong, was quoted by Nanyang Slang Pau as saying that retailers were charging as high as RM1 2 for a kilogramme of dressed broiler chicken, which was higher than the export-grade that fetched RM9.65.
Consumers who understand economics have come to accept that the good news BNM and the government are so desperately trying to dispense through the mass media does not always translate into reality when they do their daily shopping. They do not believe the statistics on inflation.
While the government is adamant about continuing with the petroleum subsidy withdrawal — although on May 25, the Cabinet decided to maintain the prices of RON95 petrol, diesel and LPG for the time being — and is resurrecting the proposed implementation of the broad-based goods and services tax (GST), housewives are lamenting that RM5O does not buy much anymore.
Interestingly, Mohd Najib has openly acknowledged that he knows this. He has said that he has heard with his own ears rural housewives lamenting about their falling purchasing power.
The question is: What is he doing about it? A few sen rise in the price of ikan kembung (mackerel) or in bus fares may not be news to the Kuala Lumpur Louis Vuitton crowd, especially if the super expensive leather apparels are a present from some wealthy corporate patrons. They hardly eat ikan kembung and certainly they do not ride the bus.

SO, while Mohd Najib’s popularity may be on the rise and the BN may be a tad stronger than during the 2008 general election, thanks in part to the perceived weakness of the Opposition, the policies and programmes of his government may not.
Take, for example, the ongoing media debate on the allocation of Public Services Department scholarships and study loans to deserving students.
It all started when the government announced that its allocation would be based on meritocracy and all students who obtained 8A+s in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) would be entitled.
This kind of debate is bound to leave emotional scars On the students and their parents, irrespective of race and creed, who failed to get government scholarships or study loans.
Even when the intentions are noble, things could still go wrong due to poor information management. The announcement by Mohd Najib on the raising of the salary grades for 1,228 secondary school principals on the eve of the recent Teacher’s Day celebration is a case in point.
An English mainstream newspaper reduced the government’s recognition of the senior teachers as mere goodies when it headlined the report as ‘Teacher’s Day Goodies’.
Such an oversight is inopportune for the Prime Minister, who chose to make the announcement himself instead of leaving it to the Education Minister.
Even without the newspaper labeling the award as ‘goodies’, the Opposition is already accusing the government of dishing out pre-election goodies.
As such, it could be a folly for Mohd Najib to rush into holding the general election to test his popularity when it is clear that neither the BN parties nor their supporting machinery — the mainstream media and the friendly blogs included — are ready to act as one.-14/6/2011

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