Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is a tease. With just over 100 days before his government’s five-year term ends, only he seems to hold the answer to the date of the general election.
In parliament this week – the legislature’s last meeting before the June 24 deadline – the premier displayed his trademark coyness over the timing of the vote. Walking past a gaggle of journalists, he drew hoots of faux exasperation when he stopped in his tracks, his face breaking into a wide grin, and asked aloud: “When’s the election? What am I announcing today?”
With the coming polls seen as the toughest the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition has faced in decades, observers say it is no surprise that Najib is holding his cards close to his chest.
Malaysia’s constitution grants the prime minister discretion to call elections any time during a parliamentary term, with the assent of the country’s constitutional monarch.
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After all, most of the fireworks went off months ago. Najib’s government and the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition have been in ‘election mode’ for nearly 18 months now – an outcome of Najib’s reluctance to call the vote. Whether it is a delaying tactic to wear down the opposition or trite indecision to find the most opportune time to summon the will of the people is anyone’s guess.
The biggest bombshell to drop so far was news of the defection last year of Najib’s 92-year-old former mentor Mahathir Mohamad to Pakatan Harapan, in protest against the premier’s alleged involvement in the wide-ranging scandal at the 1MDB state fund.
If Mahathir’s defection from Barisan Nasional was not stunning enough, the rapprochement with Anwar certainly was.
Anwar Ibrahim was deputy prime minister when Mahathir unceremoniously sacked him in 1998. The one-time student activist was then jailed for sodomy and corruption – charges he claimed were manufactured by his former boss who had grown wary of his national influence. Anwar, a skilled orator popular among urban Malays, was at the helm of the opposition soon after his release in 2004 until he was jailed again in 2015 for a second time – again on a sodomy charge.
This time he blamed Najib for engineering the charges to keep him out of active politics.
With their de facto leader Anwar in cold storage, Pakatan Harapan insiders are banking on the “Mahathir factor” to win crucial votes from the majority Malays.
Both sides are likely to do battle over three other issues: the economy, the support of ethnic Chinese voters and the future of two semi-autonomous Malaysian states in Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak.
The vote will be as much a watershed moment for Najib as it is for Malaysia.