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Friday, August 31, 2012

Najib faces DILEMMA on vote: That's why he keeps postponing GE13 date


Najib faces DILEMMA on vote: That's why he keeps postponing GE13 date
KUALA LUMPUR—Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak faces a tricky challenge as the deadline approaches for holding fresh elections here: He remains relatively popular in much of the country—but his government is less so.
Mr. Najib has continued to fare well in voter surveys this year, with many residents saying they believe his reform efforts—including a promise to repeal an unpopular law criminalizing speech with a "seditious tendency"—are well-intentioned.
But voters also tell pollsters they are dissatisfied overall with the coalition government led by the United Malays National Organization, which has governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957. Many voters have indicated they want more radical change, notably to rein in corruption and make the economy more competitive.
Disconnect
That disconnect between voters' views of Mr. Najib and of his ruling coalition complicates the prime minister's decision on when to call the next election, which by law must be held by the first part of next year. The vote—whose timing has been the subject of heated popular debate for months—is widely expected to be the most competitive in Malaysia's history, following a 2008 election in which opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim guided a multiethnic opposition alliance to its best performance in years.
Many analysts believe the date could be announced as early as September, after the government unveils its next budget, but Mr. Najib's team has declined to say.
He can call a vote soon and hope Malaysians will bet on him to push his coalition to back tougher reforms, in a fresh term or he can hold out longer and hope his government's overall ratings improve. But waiting has an added risk: Some analysts expect Malaysia's economy to weaken amid slowing global demand.
On election day, they're not voting for Najib!
A June survey by local research organization the Merdeka Center found 64% of voters satisfied with Mr. Najib's performance more than three years after he assumed power. Although down slightly from a few months ago, that is far higher than his 45% rating just after taking office. But only 42% were happy with his government, with 44% dissatisfied or angry. Many expressed concern over the economic outlook.
Other surveys this year have also found fairly strong backing for Mr. Najib, even as public criticism of his government has intensified. Criticism boiled over in an April protest in downtown Kuala Lumpur by tens of thousands of people calling for cleaner elections. It ended with the police bringing in water cannons and tear gas.
"Najib all around comes across positively, but the party he controls alienates" people, said Ibrahim Suffian, program director at the Merdeka Center. Although surveys show he "is effective as an individual" and articulates his policies well, "on Election Day, they're not voting for Najib, they're voting for the party."
Weak performance
Mr. Najib faced some criticism of his own for the handling of the April protests. But he avoids harsher condemnation largely by positioning himself as a backer of changes sought especially by younger Malaysians—including repeal of the Sedition Act a publications act that gives the government wide-ranging powers over the issuing of licenses to print. He has offered to modify a decades-old affirmative-action program for the majority ethnic-Malay population and liberalize parts of the economy to attract more foreign investors. He has also shown up at rock concerts and worked to build up a following on Twitter.
"Since taking office in 2009, the prime minister has implemented bold policies to transform the economy, improve the delivery of government services and expand civil liberties," a government representative said.
Mr. Najib's efforts haven't gone as far as many activists would like, though, as more conservative elements of his UMNO party resist.
"I think Najib has tried hard to be a good leader," said Chris Eng, head of research in the Investment Management Division at Etiqa, an insurance arm of Malaysia's largest lender by assets, Maybank. "It is not easy to change the culture of the government overnight and there are still many within the government [and] ruling political body that are still resistant to recommendations of change by Najib."
Even so, he said, "I would personally like to see Najib take the bull by its horns" and push more politically painful policies—such as reducing costly state subsidies for fuel and other products and more aggressively attacking corruption.
'Vote buying'
Mr. Najib's government has unveiled big spending programs that critics call vote buying, including about $700 million in payouts for civil servants and retired government workers, with other sweeteners expected when he unveils the next budget in September.
One risk, his supporters say, is that Mr. Najib's coalition could eventually win, but with a narrow enough result that UMNO elders seek to replace him. Mr. Ibrahim at the Merdeka Center says he believes the coalition will do no better than in the last election, when it lost its accustomed two-thirds parliamentary majority.
"That's why they keep postponing the vote," he said.
-WSJ.com

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