Pakatan Harapan is unlikely to enlarge their voter support for the 14th general election by tapping concerns over the dull economy and weaker ringgit alone, analysts said.
Faisal Hazis from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia said one of the reasons that Election 2008 and Election 2013 saw tight competition between the federal Opposition and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) was due to Malaysians feeling the economic pinch amid rising living costs.
But he noted that Malaysia’s relatively low unemployment rate and inflation rate meant its economic squeeze was not as severe as countries in the Middle East which experienced uprisings. Instead, he believes that such economic concerns would, like the previous two elections, only turn the urban voters away from BN.
“Economy is still a factor but more a factor in urban areas, not so much in rural areas, although people are increasingly affected by the economic squeeze,” the associate professor told Malay Mail Online when contacted.
As such, the Opposition will still need to redouble its efforts to win over rural support, he said.
“You don’t expect their unhappiness with government to actually translate into votes,” he added.
While this would be the first general elections since the controversial Goods and Services Tax (GST) was introduced in April 2015, Faisal noted that it had little effect on voter patterns in last year’s Sarawak state election despite much disgruntlement.
“So people especially in urban areas would not be happy with that but if you look in rural areas, yes, GST started to affect a lot of people, especially rural areas, especially Sabah and Sarawak… if you don’t have a strong Opposition, on the ground people may not be happy with BN but they may not necessarily vote for you because they don’t see a strong alternative,” he added.
Faisal described the elections as a contest of brands and said the federal Opposition still has further to go to build a presence capable of competing with the BN establishment.
This would involve work such as forming party branches, registering new party members, holding fundraising and voter registration drives and other party activities, he said.
He pointed that it took the DAP 30 years before it could even nudge the BN from Sarawak urban seats.
Universiti Utara Malaysia’s Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani similarly said economic issues such as rising living costs would likely only sway urban voters away from BN, but believed that the federal Opposition in its current divided state would be unable to take advantage of such sentiments to boost its existing voter support among urbanites beyond the levels in 2008 and 2013.
“Because Opposition now have third force, third force will split the vote, so I don’t think they have the strength to challenge BN, unless they unite among themselves to form a very strong Opposition, then I think they have a good chance to challenge BN,” the associate professor said, referring to opposition party PAS and its ally Parti Ikatan Bangsa Malaysia (Ikatan) as the third force.
As for rural voters who are also facing issues such as the GST, Mohd Azizuddin believes they will stick with BN and its mainstay party Umno as the latter would have strong party machinery and mechanisms, including giving aid to persuade voters to continue supporting them.
Best time frame for elections
While the BN government’s mandate expires only mid next year, Faisal predicts it will opt for an early poll in either the first or second quarter of this year.
Although the ringgit had recently hit a low of RM4.50 to a US dollar and prices of fish and vegetables had recently gone up due to the floods, Faisal believes the key consideration now would be on the federal Opposition’s current disarray and whether BN has sufficient funds to dish out goodies during its election campaign.
“I think the main consideration is the Opposition in disarray and If he calls for an early election that be the main issue for consideration, not so much the currency.
“At the moment, the longer Najib prolongs the election date, I think that it’s more favourable for Opposition because it will give them more time to get themselves organised and consolidate,” he said.
Pointing out there is no guarantee that prices of groceries will drop if the BN does not hold elections early this year, Faisal said the BN might still call for early polls instead of risking contest against a united federal Opposition as had happened in the previous two elections.
BN may also forego waiting for new electoral seats to be created amid a stalled redelineation exercise in Selangor if they felt a united Opposition coalition is a bigger risk, he said.
“It’s very important to fix the election date so everybody knows when the election is going to happen, and it’ll be fair to the Opposition and also investors will not be in a difficult position to make decisions and this will create more stability in the country,” he said.
Mohd Azizuddin said the slow economy was still relatively stable and would have lesser importance in when BN decides to call for elections, saying that the primary consideration would be the need for a “feel-good” mood among the public, followed by BN’s readiness for elections in terms of party machinery and funds.
He said elections could be held in either the later half of this year or next year, as prospects for Malaysia’s economy is expected to be slightly better towards the end of the year with reduced oil production to drive up prices and national revenue, and as the ringgit may appreciate if the US steps in to control the rise of its dollar’s value.
“For me I think they have time to prepare for many things. Probably they will try to assure people economy is good and stable and people feel happy with that and machinery ready to face election and mood of people after independence day, so maybe they see that everything is in order and after that call for election,” he said when explaining why an early polls would be more likely after August.
He cited the Independence Day celebrations and Malaysia’s hosting of the 29th South-east Asian (Sea) Games in August as events that may uplift the people’s spirits and create a suitable timing for elections, adding that other measures such as incentives to the public or lowering of fuel prices could be options to create a positive mood among voters.
Oh Ei Sun, an adjunct senior fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the earliest possible time for GE14 to be held will be “probably after October budget and also the 60th anniversary Merdeka festivities”.
“I think in terms of timing for GE14, BN will have to carefully weigh the weakening RM versus the likelihood for further fragmentation of the Opposition (which will benefit BN), both likely to happen over the next year or so,” he told Malay Mail Online, believing that BN will wait for the “very last minute” to call for polls as the fragmentation of the Opposition will only get worse.
When asked about the significance of issues such as rising living costs, the ringgit’s strength and the Malaysian economy’s performance in GE14, Oh replied: “They will no doubt play a very significant role, but can be patched up over short-term period leading toward the next GE.”
Datuk Mohamad Abu Bakar, a senior research fellow at Universiti Malaya, believed that GE14 will be held in the first half of this year, as the BN would rather retain power at the risk of losing some votes in the current gloomy economic conditions, instead of be met with the potential of worse conditions later on.
“In such a case I believe they would be holding the elections earlier than scheduled for none other than to avoid matters, like the ringgit and so on, from getting worse.
“This is also because they would want to capitalise on the positive results seen in the two by-elections, which means they are likely to harbour hope that they could build on that momentum as well as the prospect of a stabilising ringgit,” he told Malay Mail Online.
Recently, BMI Research forecasted the ringgit to average RM4.50 against the greenback for the rest of the year and RM4.40 in 2018, while Deputy Finance Minister I Datuk Othman Aziz was reported saying that the ringgit will rebound to a fair value of 4.1 against the US dollar in the third quarter of the year. Economists have said predictions of a ringgit recovery by the third quarter are over-optimistic.
The government has repeatedly stressed that the fundamentals of Malaysia’s economy remain strong amid uncertain global economic conditions, with minister Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan highlighting last December that Malaysia’s unemployment rate at the end of September was at 3.5 per cent and its inflation rate stayed at 2.1 per cent for the January to October period.
Source : IDA LIM AND SYED JAYMAL ZAHIID @ The Malay Mail Online