THE year opens with a bang with the upcoming Jan 17 Kuala Terengganu by-election which will see a battle between traditional rivals – Umno and PAS – for the hearts and minds of mostly Malay voters.
Although just a by-election and while a victory or defeat would not alter the power balance in parliament, it will carry a national dimension because the outcome will be seen as a barometer of acceptance or rejection of the rival political coalitions by the Malays.The key political event for Barisan Nasional and the country is the departure of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in March after five years as prime minister. He is set to hand over the reins to his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak after the Umno general assembly in the fourth week of March.
All eyes would thereafter be on the new man Najib, the son of Malaysiaâ€™s revered second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak.
Focus will be on who he picks for his cabinet, those who will articulate his vision, and how he interacts with non-Malays and ease their economic and political fears.
The rise of Najib will also see the final eclipse of many holdovers from the Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad era; classic examples being Wanita leader Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu. Although many of their time will depart the political scene, Dr Mahathir who had presided over their long careers, is expected to see a rebirth of his political fortunes in 2009. Already he is a hit in cyberspace with millions of visitors to his Chedet.com website where he, as usual, speaks his mind on a variety of issues ranging from his favourite, the failings of his hand-picked successor Abdullah, to little known issues like MCA founder Tun Tan Cheng Lockâ€™s view of citizenship for non-Malays.
How Najib and the remorseless Mahathir get along will be keenly watched in 2009. Will their relationship grate (as that of Mahathir and Abdullah) or will it be balmy as some political insiders believe it will surely be. Regardless, it is a time-honoured political truism that no man newly in power would want to be babysat by a former mentor.
With or without Dr Mahathir in the shadows, the focus remains on Najib and how he will handle the thorniest issues of the day â€“ race relations, reforms and winning back the political support the BN and Umno lost to the opposition.
Najib is still an unknown story despite being in government for nearly three decades. He is said to be excellent at breaking down complex issues into manageable pieces. He also understands the civil service and is patient and not easily ruffled. These are qualities that have helped him survive the cutthroat world of Umno politics and his recent confrontations with the opposition. We will however only get to see the real Najib (and his policies) after he formally takes over as prime minister.
â€œIt will most likely be a year of reforms â€¦ the reforms that Abdullah started and Najib has promised to carry on,â€ says Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam.
â€œI see in 2009 the start of the reform process in the ruling Barisan coalition. Reform of the ISA, press laws and election rules are all included,â€ he said.
Others are less optimistic, predicting that Najib will be selective in his reform plans so as not to upset the political establishment and entrenched forces in Umno.
Najib has his work cut out for him â€“ reforms, winning back lost political support, rebuilding Umno and getting Barisan going again.
He does not have the luxury of time as he has to also quell a possible rebellion in Sabah and prepare for an earlier-than-expected election in Sarawak where the opposition plans to work their magic among the Dayaks said to be on the warpath.
He has also to ward off the constant threat from the opposition to win over government backbenchers and topple the government â€“ although that threat has somewhat receded.
But overshadowing everything else in 2009 is still the global economic downturn.
The fear of business collapses, jobs lost, depletion of savings and rising cost of living is already tangible and is expected to deepen in 2009.
If the situation does worsen and our economy is hit hard, the resulting negative impact will significantly colour national politics and the daily life of the people.
Going by precedence, there will be more protests as more people are laid off, and consequently more repression to maintain public peace. In the past, periods of economic turmoil has always been followed by political upheavals. An exception to this is unlikely unless the contagion is brief and largely benign.
At a recent meeting of financial experts, Najib stressed that the country needed â€œstabilityâ€ over everything else, to cope with the economic crisis that was enveloping the world.
â€œThe 2008 general election is over,â€ he told the meeting, implying it was time for politics to take a backseat so that the economic issues could be tackled.
That is how 2009 is likely to be.
Source : The Star