JULY 18 — His smile comes easily enough, but there is a concerned man behind that cheery exterior. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi knows that the next few months could have far-reaching consequences on the next general election, scheduled for 2013.
If the softening economy is not managed well and if the sodomy investigation against opposition icon Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim becomes a farce, or at least in the eyes of many Malaysians it disintegrates into nothing more than a political sideshow, Umno could end up being punished by Malay voters at the next polls.
And this could spell the end of the Barisan Nasional's grip on power.
Consider the facts: Abdullah and BN managed to win Election 2008 on the strength of the Malay vote. Despite sabotage and wrong choice of candidates, Umno delivered big on March 8 because the rural support from 2004 was largely intact and the desertion of the urban Malay voters was insignificant. In contrast, the MCA, Gerakan, MIC and PPP suffered major reverses because the usual bank of Chinese and Indians voters bolted to the Opposition.
There is little to suggest that there is widespread remorse bias among non-Malays for voting for Pakatan Rakyat. If anything, the latest approval rating of the Prime Minister shows that his support is much stronger in the Malay community than it is with non-Malays.
Also, preliminary findings of a survey on political developments in Malaysia paint a stark picture for BN. It suggests that the relationship between the ruling coalition and the non-Malay voter is severely frayed, and can only be repaired if serious reforms are undertaken and steps taken to ensure more equality among Malaysians of all races.
In short, until and unless serious change is done by the Umno-led coalition, the Indians and Chinese are not going to return in droves to BN in 2013.
Now consider what happened in Election 1999. A year after Anwar was sacked, beaten up and jailed for abuse of power and sodomy there was a major split in the Malay community. Many Malays were upset at the manner the former deputy prime minister was treated and humiliated. The result: they voted for Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), giving the Islamic party 27 parliamentary seats and a place at the main table of Malaysian politics.
Then, Indian and Chinese voters were also troubled by the Anwar episode but they were more spooked by the concept of the green tide of PAS and the Islamic state, gave overwhelming support to BN. Today, the fear of PAS has gone, replaced by the belief that the greater impediment to Indians and Chinese enjoying unfettered religious space and more freedom in this country is a proud Umno, rather than the ulama of PAS.
So what Abdullah and the BN have today is Malay support. The survey on political developments showed that many Malays are supporting the ruling coalition based on their track record of managing the economy well. But this sentiment is going to be challenged with inflation expected to hit 6 per cent, and the economy slowing down.
Private think tank Malaysian Institute of Economic Research has cut its forecast for the country's economic growth to 4.6% from 5.4% for 2008 because of a knock-on effect of higher oil prices and slowing global growth.
"We revised our figure down to 4.6% largely because we see a serious slowdown in our major trading partners," said Mohamed Ariff, executive director of MIER.
"What really compelled us to revise downwards is mostly external developments and the current political instability in the country," Mohamed said.
Government planners and officials are concerned about the perfect economic storm. This scenario would see rising prices, recession, lower government spending, unemployment all hit home at the same time.
"The government cannot afford to be distracted by the Anwar issue. The economic situation is going to get really challenging and we need to be focused.
"We will need to pump prime and make sure that we cushion the economic slowdown. The PM knows that his biggest challenge is not Anwar and the sodomy charges but the economy, '' said a government official.
Malaysia's saving grace is that its fundamentals are sound, foreign exchange reserves exceeding US$100 billion (RM330 billion), savings high and commodities such as palm oil and rubber doing well. But a major curveball is the police probe into the sodomy accusation against Anwar.
A former aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, accused Anwar of sodomising him on June 26 at a condominium in Bukit Damansara, Kuala Lumpur. The opposition leader says that the accusation is politically motivated to prevent him from challenging the government.
Abdullah knows that public perception is with Anwar, largely due to the manner similar sodomy charges were investigated in 1998. He cannot afford to have this case fester like a sore for the next few months. He also cannot afford to have the police and BN politicians pursue this case like a personal vendetta against the Opposition. He cannot afford to have Anwar treated like a common criminal.
Anwar has to be charged soon or his accuser must be charged. Any other outcome will hurt BN the next time it faces the voters.