Tuesday 5 June 2012

Economic gloom, slow reforms likely to cut BN popularity at polls

KUALA LUMPUR, June 5 — A delay in calling for polls may cause a further drop in voter support for Barisan Nasional (BN) should the euro-debt crisis hit home, making it harder for the ruling coalition to continue funding cash handouts and maintain its popularity, pundits say.

The Najib administration’s delay in carrying out its slew of government, law and economic transformation reforms has also turned the tide against it with support from the minority Chinese and Indian communities shrinking further based on independent pollster Merdeka Center’s latest round of surveys, the analysts said.

“A delay in polls could backfire. Mind you, there’s the euro crisis, it could come and hit Malaysia,” Kuching-based political analyst Faisal Hazis told The Malaysian Insider.

Economists have said that Greece’s exit from the euro zone could reduce China’s expansion to 6.4 per cent this year, from 9.2 per cent in 2011. Malaysia, along with the rest of Asia, has increased trade with China for years and the Asian giant is now its top trade partner.

Speculation has been rife that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak (picture) may call a general election only after tabling the 2013 Budget on September 28, more than a month after Hari Raya Aidil Fitri. The window for polls before that date is by July 21 when the Ramadan fasting month begins.

The Najib administration has spent heavily on schemes designed to aid the public cope with the rising cost of living with a massive pay hike for civil servants, giving out book vouchers to students and dishing out a one-off handout of RM500 to low-income households under the Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia (BR1M), which resulted in the PM’s personal ratings to jump in previous polls.

“Handouts are just a distraction from the larger issues of how the country is managed and whether there is real transformation.

“The government can top up with more goodies during the next Budget, but support of Malay voters may already have achieved a peak,” said Faisal, who lectures in politics and international relations.

He pointed to the latest Merdeka Center polls which showed 79 per cent of Malay voters were satisfied with Najib’s leadership, up from 74 percent in February.

But the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak don said there was a “significant percentage of hardcore opposition voters among the Malays who, despite the issues played and handouts given, will support PR”.

“Before the feel-good factor subsides, the government should just call for GE. If BN waits any longer, it can lose Malay voters because the feel-good sentiment has gone off,” Faisal said.

He said non-Malay voters generally feel the government lacked political will to carry out meaningful reforms.

He pointed to the Najib administration’s backtrack on the idea to level the economic playing field by ridding in stages a lopsided policy favouring Bumiputera businesses under the New Economic Model (NEM).

The government’s tardiness in releasing inmates held in Kamunting under the Internal Security Act (ISA) despite having repealed the law that allowed for detention without trial also caused the ebb in voter support, he said.

Faisal noted the government’s “harsh” actions against demonstrators pushing for electoral reforms to be speeded up ahead of polls at the April 28 rally would backfire, noting the plunge in support from Chinese voters, who form a significant urban base.

Another political analyst, James Chin, said it was notable that “Indians are going back to PR again”.
He pointed to the Merdeka Center survey last month, which saw 72 per cent Indians saying they were satisfied with Najib’s leadership compared to 80 per cent in February, down eight percentage points in just three months.

He said the dip in support from the traditionally pro-BN Indian community could indicate a shift to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) over frustrations with BN in addressing its concerns.

“It could be that the government-rolled out programmes for the Indian community are not really working,” said the lecturer at Sunway Monash University, citing the government’s project to help stateless citizens as an example.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the founder of think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), echoed the call for swift elections, which must be held by April next year.

He said there it was unlikely the BN would pull more support from fence-sitters by waiting out the economic gloom as voters had made up their minds.

“The biggest factor for Malays coming back to Najib is the fear factor of losing political power. These strategies of using fear and handouts seem to be working.

“The waiting game benefits PR because they can dig for more scandals and allegations that government have not done their duty,” Wan Saiful said.

He warned that voter support for the BN will likely dwindle the longer the election wait drags out.
“I don’t think BN will get a two-thirds majority win. Najib’s high ratings will not translate into votes for BN. Possibly votes for him personally, not for Umno or BN as a whole,” the IDEAS chief said.

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