THE new year is seeing heightened political talk throughout the country as Malaysians await the finale of the post 2008 political drama -- the 13th general election.
However, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is keeping the people guessing as to when the next national polls will take place, obviously for tactical reasons.
His engagement in intelligence gathering over the past two years, collecting ground reports from various parties to help him assess the Barisan Nasional's chances, for certain, is still ongoing. Najib has been preparing for the electoral battle, dubbed the mother of all elections, by announcing good news that has boosted the ruling alliance's morale and galvanised BN members for the battle ahead. Being a cautious leader, it is possible he has yet to decide on the polling date, and possibly he still has some plans to improve the BN's image that was badly bruised in the 2008 general election. Analysts have said that the BN government still needs more time to repair its image among non-Malays, tackle corruption and drive the economy higher with competitive policies. Najib's predecessor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, dissolved Parliament in March 2004, four months after taking over the premiership, while Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad dissolved Parliament in March 1982, eight months after becoming the fourth prime minister. Both scored landslide victories amid more conducive political environments. No doubt, there is greater public confidence in the government that Najib leads. But there are still thorny issues -- factional problems within his own party, Umno, and the BN's inability to offer an alternative line-up to retake Selangor, Penang and Kedah from Pakatan Rakyat as well as the impact of the European debt crisis -- that crave attention. If the internal problems are not solved, it would be hard for the BN to achieve a brilliant victory. Malaysians, generally have come to realise that the government has a clear direction for the future, the Government Transformation Plan and Economic Transformation Programme, both far superior than the Jingga Deal that Pakatan Rakyat is offering. But the public declaration of assets made by Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and his state executive councillors, has won Pakatan Rakyat some brownie points, especially among younger voters who are an increasingly sophisticated electorate and cynical of political spin. Like it or not, the National Feedlot Centre (NFC) issue and money politics scandals involving leaders of the ruling parties are having a negative impact on the BN. The acquittal of opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim on a sodomy charge by the High Court and the subsequent appeal against the judgment filed by the prosecution to the Federal Court, too, have both positive and negative impact on the ruling coalition. The debates over the Peaceful Assembly Bill and the Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris student demonstration have also ended up as issues that could dampen efforts to woo swing voters to the BN's side. So, too, the two new acts replacing the Internal Security Act which the prime minister is scheduled to table at the March parliamentary sitting. The public also awaits the outcome of a review of the shelved new public service remuneration scheme that had sparked controversy because of the lopsided salary increase that favours the top echelon in the civil service. As speculation on the polling date continues, people are bracing for more sizzling political temperatures; political activities have been on the rise since the new year started and campaigning has gone up a notch. The opposition political bloc has been in election mode for more than a year now. The unofficial ongoing campaign by both sides and their supporters gives the impression that they can hardly wait for the next polls, which by law, only needs to be called by the middle of next year. The BN's election publicity machinery, according to its chief, Datuk Ahmad Maslan, is already in full swing, having shifted into fifth gear and on standby for the dissolution of Parliament. "The instruction from the prime minister is to accelerate and shift into fifth gear. It's no longer third or fourth gear. We are in full swing, save for some minor adjustments," he was reported as saying recently. Though political observers view Najib's regular public appearances in several states of late as signs of looming elections, some politicians think the possibility of a March polls is low, especially after the prime minister told the Wall Street Journal recently that it was not the time for election as the government's reform initiatives were not in full swing yet. This month alone, the prime minister, who is also BN chairman, had delivered what is seen as "campaign speeches" for the ruling coalition during his visits to Perak, Selangor, Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur and Penang. He is scheduled to visit Perlis today and Perak tomorrow, besides Terengganu on Feb 3 and Johor on Feb 12. Pundits however, are glossing over the fact that March this year or March 2013 are possible dates, going by their own deduction or logic. The March 2012 date is still the popular bet among politicians from Pakatan Rakyat despite the cabinet having set March 12 to April 12 for the next parliamentary session and the Dewan Negara sitting after that. This is possibly due to the fact that five of the past 12 general elections were held in that month.Some analysts have said that Najib could call polls sooner rather than later, to avoid a slowdown in economy as the global economic outlook deteriorates. Another reason is, the good feelings brought by the distribution of aid might dissipate after June. Schoolchildren and undergraduates have received their aid while the 1Malaysia People's Aid (BR1M) of RM500 will be distributed until mid-April. Unless there are other aid distribution plans, the BN will miss the opportunity to take advantage of this feel good factor. If March is not to be the D-Day, it could still be held in June since the BN could also capitalise on the public listing of Felda Global Ventures, which should take place by that time. Only, there's the threat of Europe's debt crisis hitting Malaysia's shores and voters likely venting their anger over a possible rise in the cost of living on the ruling government by voting for the alternative. Then again, staying on to the full parliamentary term may provide time for the Najib administration to push through reforms and convince the people that BN is still the best for the country, although this would entail more risks. Nonetheless, the long-awaited electoral battle has reached the extent of exhausting people's patience.