(Petaling Jaya, Thursday): The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad yesterday ruled out snap elections on the ground that the Government wants to concentrate on reviving the economy.
Mahathir said it would be a "little heavy" to handle both the economy and the general election at the same time because both required full attention and time.
He claimed that the government and UMNO were still very strong after the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister.
He said: "We (the government) are still very strong. In any case I believe that most of the country is still behind this government. Maybe I'm kidding myself but apart from a few people who are disappointed with certain things...people generally seem to be supportive."
Dr. Mahathir said that if there had been "wholesale defections" of Barisan Nasional Members of Parliament, he would have accepted that the coalition was unpopular and would have considered calling for snap polls.
"This is different from 1987 where there was a substantial shift away from the Government and quite a number of people joined Semangat 46."
However, although Mahathir admitted that there was "a substantial shift
away from the Government" in 1987 after the UMNO split leading to the formation
of Semangat 46, he never entertained the notion of snap general elections
at the time - and general election was not held until some three years
later in October 1990!
The real reason why Mahathir has finally ruled out snap polls this year is because the Barisan Nasional would have suffered unprecedented electoral setback and be deprived of parliamentary two-thirds majority if general election is held now.
The possibility of snap general elections was clearly on the cards in July and August this year when the country was preparing to celebrate the 41st National Day and host the Commonwealth Games and even after the shocking and unprecedented expulsion of Anwar Ibrahim as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister on Sept. 2.
This was because Mahathir had wrongly calculated that after isolating Anwar from the top UMNO leadership, without a single UMNO ‘heavyweight’ coming out in support of the former heir-designate unlike the previous challenge to his leadership by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in 1987 who garnered quite a galaxy of UMNO national and state leaders behind him, and the trial and conviction by Anwar of various high crimes by the media, it would spell the political death for Anwar.
What Mahathir had not reckoned with is the ability of Anwar to rally populist support although he had been drummed out of UMNO for there is one great difference between the challenge by Anwar and Razaleigh to Mahathir’s leadership - that Anwar’s challenge has taken on a inter-generational dimension where the high-handed crushing of Anwar without convincing and satisfactory reasons has been seen as a crushing of the hopes of Malaysians, particularly the young generation of Malaysians, for greater openness, freedom, democracy, accountability, transparency and justice in Malaysian politics and governance.
This is why Anwar has been able to command such great public sympathy and support not only before his arrest, but also after his arrest and being charged in court - for Anwar has continued to be a victim of high-handedness like his black eye when he was first produced in court on Sept. 29, his continued detention under the Internal Security Act although charged in court for very serious offences and the restrictions placed on his family and his lawyers from getting access to him.
In fact, the government’s treatment of Anwar has become not only a national embarrassment but also an international embarrassment, and never before have so many international figures spoken up publicly to express their dismay and shock over Anwar’s treatment - whether from the United States, United Kingdom, the European Union, international agencies like the United Nations, UNESCO, IMF or World Bank or even ASEAN countries like Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand.
The timing of the general election is the prerogative of the Prime Minister, to pick the most opportune moment for the ruling coalition - and there is no need for the Prime Minister to gloss it with other self-serving reasons.
Regardless of whether Mahathir is going to call general elections in the first quarter of next year or the year 2,000, I call on the Prime Minister to respond to the widespread aspirations of Malaysians for greater openness, freedom, democracy, accountability, transparency and justice and as a first step, to immediately release Anwar and other remaining detainees under the Internal Security Act.
Anwar has already been charged in court and Mahathir has said many a time publicly that the courts should be allaowed decide his guilt or innocence.
However, Mahathir should not be seen as to be afraid of the political challenge mounted by Anwar by continuing to detain him under the ISA.