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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Calls for fresh Perak elections hard to ignore

KUALA LUMPUR, May 15 — The Straits Times

The worsening crisis in Perak is fast becoming a political runaway train that is lurching out of control for the Barisan Nasional government.

Unless the paralysis in Perak is quickly resolved, the crisis could define the first 100 days in office of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and distract his administration's attention away from managing the slumping economy, analysts and politicians say.

Already, several senior politicians from Najib's own ruling Umno party are calling on the government to dissolve the state assembly and pave the way for fresh elections.

Calling for fresh polls, former Umno vice-president Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah wrote in his widely followed blog: “At this stage, there is no other way to restore both public confidence and constitutional legality to the Perak state government and, by extension, our entire system of government.”

For now, Najib is reluctant to go down that path because a drubbing for BN in a snap poll is a foregone conclusion.

There is also the question of personal pride. Najib personally led the campaign to wrest power in Perak in early February, just weeks before being installed as premier.

To back down now could be interpreted as political weakness by his followers in his embattled party.

But as the crisis worsens, many analysts and senior politicians say that his government's determination to cling on to power amid growing public opprobrium will only enhance the franchise of the opposition coalition.

The Perak impasse has also raised concerns over the independence of institutions such as the civil service, the country's security agencies and the justice system.

Last week's shocking removal of the Speaker of the state assembly — who is from Pakatan Rakyat — by government security personnel, as well as the arrests of opposition supporters, prompted a surprisingly sharp reaction from the state-backed Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, better known as Suhakam.

“It somewhat makes us wonder whether service to the people is subordinated to service to political interests,” Suhakam's chairman Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman, who was also one of the country’s longest-serving attorneys-general, said in a statement.

Echoing a view shared by politicians from both sides of the divide, he also noted that “perhaps the time has come for the people of Perak to be given the opportunity to exercise their right to choose again the government of their choice”.

The power grab has also inadvertently boosted the popularity of the opposition, particularly PAS.

A key beneficiary has been the ousted Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin, who is from PAS.

The soft-spoken politician has succeeded in capturing the imagination of the Perak people with his populist policies.

More importantly, Nizar's stoic response to the Umno-led onslaught, which among other things included labelling him a traitor to the Malay community, has improved the political standing of PAS as a national party that can be counted on to protect the interests of non-Malays.

BN and Najib were presented with an opportunity to stop the Perak runaway train this week. The High Court's decision on Monday to declare Nizar as the rightful menteri besar and Nizar's call for fresh state elections offered a way out of the mess.

For sure, the outcome would not have been ideal because fresh state elections would undoubtedly see the ruling coalition get soundly defeated at the ballot box.

Still, it would have removed Perak from the national agenda and allowed the ruling coalition to focus its attention on renewing its appeal among voters.

By digging its heels in over Perak, the Najib administration is only providing the opposition with ammunition against the government that will last it until the next general election, which must be held before 2013.

As the saying goes, opposition parties do not win elections. Governments lose them.

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