On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Hint of polls fuels guessing game

The argument is that Barisan Nasional wants to seek a
fresh mandate before it rides through the 
mounting uncertainties clouding 
the economy and the region.

The political strategy, the reasoning goes, is to get through the  polls before the country enters its  roughest economic period in 13  years.

The Prime Minister, who is on a 
nationwide tour to explain the economic crisis to the people, has  asked foreigners not to read too  much into the visits.

Last week, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the visits  were to explain the current problems to the
people directly.

Some people, he said, thought  that they
were not affected by the  economic
slowdown, including  those who were in
the rubber, oil  palm and cocoa

He said this was because the  prices of
the export crops had increased because of the depreciation of the

The visits have been dubbed Semarak II by political observers, in  reference to the mammoth gatherings a decade

The last elections were held in  April
1995 when the Barisan scored  a landslide

Two weeks ago, MCA president  Datuk Seri
Dr Ling Liong Sik met  the party's 104
elected representatives to brief them on preparations  for the general election.

Sending political temperatures  rising,
the party's MPs and assemblymen were ordered to set up  their election operations centres at  state level.

According to party sources, division leaders have been asked to oil  their campaign machinery.

The statements of Barisan secretary-general Datuk Mohamed Rahmat and Umno
secretary-general  Datuk Sabbaruddin Chik
on gearing up for the polls have added 
weight to such speculation.

Mohamed had urged the coalition  to
resolve all internal problems, especially divisive issues, to build  unity ahead of the next election.

In Kelantan, both the Barisan and  PAS
have held mock election campaigns to test their machinery.

In the case of politically-charged 
Sabah, the Barisan has held at least 
two dry runs.

Sabah must hold their elections  by
February next year  fuelling  talk that simultaneous state and  general elections would be held by  next year.

There are several factors that  one must
take into account when  speculating on
the polls.

Kuala Lumpur will host the Commonwealth Games next month, followed by the
tabling of the 1999  Budget in October,
when the Dewan Rakyat will meet until December.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit will take  place in November, which will see  one of the largest gatherings of  world leaders.

Besides security considerations,  such a
meeting requires the support staff from all ministries and  agencies 
which would make it  almost
impossible for polls to be  held around
that time.

All the ministers, many of whom  are
component party leaders,  would also be
involved one way or  another in the

The year-end possibility seems  remote if
we take into account all  these important

There is also another argument  that an
early general election will  be held to
ensure that Umno politicians channel their energy towards  Barisan instead of party elections.

As in the past, campaigning for  party
posts has been conducted at  buka puasa
functions, leading to a  ban on such

The trend has always been to  hold the
general election first before the party polls to ensure its  strength.

For many, the pledge of support  for Dr
Mahathir by his deputy Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in Penang  is significant.

While he has repeatedly made  such
declarations, it was the first  time he
committed the state's 11  Umno divisions
to endorse Dr Mahathir for presidency.

Anwar's support should end  speculation
in the foreign press  about the
differences between the  two

One foreign report even said that 
Barisan has boosted its electoral 
chances following the bitter railway dispute with Singapore.

The logic or lack of it from the  report
is that widespread patriotism generated from the dispute  would translate into votes.

As with many of these foreign  reports,
these journalists often  choose to
interview European diplomats for their observations.

It is strange that these journalists have never bothered to get the  reaction of Asian diplomats. After  all, they, too, watch the political
developments in Malaysia closely.

But political analysts can be sure  of
one thing  polls in Sabah will  have to be held by early next year.

Keen contests, many believe, are  expected
in many areas in the Sabah polls. The question now is  whether Barisan wants to hold the  Sabah polls first where competition  is tough or to hold both elections  together.

And as Mohamed told the nine  Sabah
Barisan parties last week:  Get ready for
state elections as if it  will be held
tomorrow. That's a  strong hint.