Things may not have turned out for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak quite the way he intended recently, possibly sending his plans for a snap poll back to the drawing board.
Datuk Seri Najib had hoped to burnish his image with two major events last month – a meeting with US President Donald Trump and the return of a former Umno stalwart to the fold.
Instead, both stirred controversy.
Mr Najib’s meeting with Mr Trump in Washington came unstuck over his announcement of plans to use up to US$24 billion (S$32.4 billion) of state funds to buy Boeing aircraft and other American goods.
The Premier described the move as an effort to help the American economy, but critics said the money would have been better spent giving the domestic economy a boost.
Meanwhile, the return of scandal-tainted former Selangor chief minister Muhammad Muhammad Taib to his ruling Umno party was met with jeers, rather than cheers.
The Sunday Times understands that Mr Najib now wants to pass an election Budget, to be tabled at the end of the month, ahead of a possible profile-raising visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping next month.
Experts and ordinary Malaysians believe the polls will be called after Chinese New Year next February.
But some are loath to dismiss the December to January option.
“Some advisers are telling Najib that he has the rural vote sewn up, so it is worth making a play for the urban vote in a bid to reclaim two-thirds of Parliament or Selangor,” a government source said, explaining why a December to January election was an option, as monsoon season is of less concern in the cities.
Most observers believe reclaiming Malaysia’s richest state, or its once-customary supermajority in Parliament, would shut the door firmly on any challenge to Mr Najib within Umno, which leads the Barisan Nasional coalition government.
Since 2015, Mr Najib has had to fend off graft allegations related to state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Umno has also seen the exit of senior leaders, including former premier Mahathir Mohamad and then deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, over the past two years.
All previous general elections in Malaysia, except for the Nov 29, 1999 polls, were held between March and October. One key reason was to avoid the year-end monsoon which begins in November and peaks over the next two months.
But several Umno sources said a December date would be opportune, if the Budget is filled with handouts. Also, many urban voters, who traditionally lean towards the opposition, plan overseas vacations during the December school holidays.
The government has not worked out the logistical nightmare of transporting ballot boxes and counting officers in the event of a flood, but some strategists from the Barisan coalition believe that their support, even among those seeking relief at flood shelters, will not be affected.
The last big flood in Malaysia happened at the end of 2014, when more than 100,000 people were evacuated from Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast and northern states. However, in a typical year, the monsoon affects fewer people – the 20,000 or so rural Malaysians who live by big rivers in Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and Kedah. And the government’s superior machinery in rural areas – like ferrying voters by boats if necessary – could put the opposition at a disadvantage.
The 1MDB scandal has largely faded into the background for rural Malaysians, although urbanites more familiar with its complex financial dealings still harbour misgivings over the Premier’s role in how the state firm once built up RM51 billion (S$16.3 billion) in debt.
Mr Najib’s White House visit was viewed as an attempt to douse attacks by the opposition, which had raised the possibility that he could face official action, even arrest, in light of the ongoing probe by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) into US$4.5 billion allegedly siphoned from 1MDB in the United States.
What had been a civil claim to seize assets they say were financed using 1MDB funds has been converted into a criminal investigation by the DOJ. Several filings have been made public, but they have not resulted in any charges thus far.
Soon after Mr Najib’s return from the US, Umno was expected to unveil a raft of defections of opposition lawmakers and leaders in opposition-ruled Selangor.
However, only former Umno vice-president Muhammad’s return has been announced. And he was not actually a prize catch; he was forced to resign as Selangor menteri besar in 1997 after being charged in Australia for failing to declare A$1.2 million when entering the country.
But Mr Najib has another shot at building up momentum for the polls with the tabling of a populist Budget on Oct 27.
And a visit by Mr Xi could be another shot in the arm. He is expected to arrive after his own crucial Communist Party congress.
In early December, Umno will hold its annual general assembly. That would allow Mr Najib to bang the war drums and make a play for the crucial Malay majority.