No date was set and the election must be held by two months from now, but based on past experience an election will more than likely be held sooner rather than later.
Since taking office four years ago, Mr. Najib, 59 years old, has nudged through reforms aimed at outflanking Mr. Anwar's supporters and containing a growing clamor for greater accountability and more democracy. After several mass rallies on the streets of Kuala Lumpur in recent years, Mr. Najib scrapped a decades-old law enabling security forces to detain critics without trial, and began chipping away at a sprawling affirmative-action program designed to help the majority ethnic-Malay Muslim population catch up with generally wealthier ethnic Chinese.
After theeatening to call an early election for the past two years, Najib ultimately left his decision until the last minute. His reasoning, according to sources within his own party, was to keep the critics and political rivals within the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) at bay.
The UMNO, the leading party in the Barisan Nasional coalition, suffered its worst electoral performance at the 2008 polls since Malaysia achieved independence from Britain in 1957.
The threat of an early election and the prospect that hapless members of parliament could lose their seats was enough to not only silence the ambitious few angling for Najib’s job, but also served opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Rakyat coalition well. They will enter this poll prepared.
Najib’s fate will be decided in the two East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo, where recent events warrant comparisons with the Banana Republics of Africa, as opposed to the modern, high-income earning state that Najib wants to lead, if elected for another term.
This includes breathtaking allegations of corruption made against the chief ministers of both states and an insurgency lauched in Sabah by a self-proclaimed sultan living across the maritime border in suburban Manila, waged by his band of mercenaries and resulting in more than 70 dead.
Amid the pre-election hype the spin doctors in Kuala Lumpur are attempting to downplay the rebellion, describing it as an “intrusion”.
More importantly, before the Sabah crisis most analysts were confidently tipping Najib to win the election, albeit with a reduced majority. Since the violence erupted on the northeastern coast of Borneo, however, opinions have changed. Now only the gushing cheerleaders in the pro-government press are adamantly predicting a victory for the UMNO.
That in itself is an enormous step away from historic norms and will no doubt provide the opposition with cause for hope, particularly given the extraordinary ordeal successsive governments have imposed on Anwar.
The odds remain in Mr. Najib's favor. The government controls many newspapers and broadcasters, leaving opposition voices to turn to the Internet. The government has put about $2 billion in the hands of poorer Malaysians since last year, which could help the National Front. An opinion survey conducted by the University of Malaya showed 42% of respondents supporting the National Front, with 37% supporting the opposition and 21% undecided.
Mr. Najib's biggest challenge might be to keep the job of prime minister, even if the National Front wins. He could face an internal challenge if he fails to improve on the government's current tally of 136 seats in the 222-seat Parliament. The prime minister also faces a potential backlash among nationalist groups who fear he is giving up too many privileges accorded the ethnic-Malay majority, who have enjoyed easier access to everything from state universities to housing loans. Conservatives such as lawmaker Ibrahim Ali warn that Malaysia under Mr. Najib is turning into a country they don't recognize.
In 2008, opposition parties won an unprecedented 82 out of 222 seats in parliament and five out of 12 contested state governments. One big question remains: If Anwar and his party were to improve upon this result in the coming weeks will the long established forces aligned with the UMNO accept the people’s choice?
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: Wikipédia: Najib Razak