On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

More excitement on the way next year

Over the next two months, we can expect the political
tempo to pick up.

If the general election is to be held by March or April,
then the various political parties must begin their campaigning by next month.
Abdullah, as Barisan Nasional chairman, has already visited most states since
taking over.

It can be considered the first round of the nationwide
tour that he must make before the polls. Besides gauging the mood on the ground
first-hand and meeting Barisan state leaders, especially those from Umno, he
would also have the opportunity to speak directly to the voters.

That aside, the five-year term for the Barisan government
in Sabah ends in March and elections must be held within
60 days.

It is most likely that the Sabah
elections would be held simultaneously with the general election. Up for grabs
will be 60 state and 25 parliamentary seats.

Over the past months, Abdullah has met state leaders to
hear their assessment reports at the Umno management meeting.

Most of them painted rosy pictures of the ground
sentiments to show that they are doing their job but Abdullah has shocked these
politicians with reports from alternative sources.

At times, the mood is very much different from what they
want Abdullah to hear.

There will be more of such meetings over the coming
months as Umno leaders chart strategies to win over constituencies, that are
still deemed to be difficult, before going to the polls.

But Abdullah cannot wait too long. His popularity is at
an all-time high at this point. His numerous populist approaches have endeared
him to the people and he must seize the opportunity to call for elections and
earn his mandate soon.

As an experienced politician, Abdullah surely knows all
this. It is a matter of choosing the right date for the polls. By Jan 31, he
would have completed his first 100 days in office.

The electorate's mood so far is certainly advantageous to
Barisan. There are no strong issues that can generate enough emotion to build
up anti-establishment sentiment.

The component parties of Barisan, which will definitely
ride on the popularity of Abdullah, have remained solidly united. The MCA,
which is the coalition's second largest party, has put its problems behind and
has found a new purpose under its younger leaders.

They have put the house in order and the direction is
clearer. They have also brought freshness to the party and have earned the
respect of the community.

While talk of an MCA-Gerakan merger seems like a mirage,
it is another step towards co-operation between the two Chinese-based parties
whose relationship has been rocky at times because of their rivalry.

In 1985, talk of a merger never got further than the
formation of an MCA-Gerakan joint council. But circumstances have changed, with
a new set of leaders from both sides – and try they must, for the larger
interest of the shrinking community.

Except for Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak, which is caught in
a leadership tussle, the rest of the parties are ready for elections. It will
not be difficult for Abdullah to get the two factions to sit down to settle
their differences.

The leadership has so far stayed out of the fight but the
time has come for Abdullah to intervene and put an end to what is nothing more
than a power struggle, in the name of the Iban community.

The only real contest for Barisan is from PAS. This
coming election is surely one where the voters have made up their minds. There
is hardly any point in PAS trying to win non-Muslim votes.

In 1999, the DAP paid a terrible price for partnering
with PAS. Its top leaders all suffered disastrous defeats, especially in Penang,
for that decision.

Until now, the Chinese community still cannot forgive the
DAP. Its leaders are trying hard to recover lost ground by criticising their
former ally but their polls pact is still fresh in people's minds.

The resignations of Terengganu DAP leaders, in order to
keep their government positions in Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang's state
government, is certainly not evidence of the Chinese supporting the Islamic
state policy, as PAS leaders are claiming.

In the 1999 polls, independent candidate Ng Chai Heng
managed only 187 votes in a three-way fight for the Bandar state seat. Barisan
candidate Wong Foon Meng, from the MCA, got 6,245 votes while Mohd Azmi Lop
Yusuf of PAS polled 6,756 votes. The majority was 511 votes with 211 spoilt

For some reason, Ng found his way back to the DAP after
the polls and even got himself appointed as state DAP secretary. Hadi also
picked him as his assistant for non-Muslim affairs. Despite his miserable
performance, PAS has portrayed him as the community's voice.

Worse, the DAP leadership allowed him to keep his post,
even after the party had severed ties with PAS for two years.

But many have pointed out the actual reason for the
readiness of these PAS appointees to dump the DAP. The state constitution,
following amendments by PAS, provides for the nomination of assemblymen from
minority and women's groups.

Ng and his supporters obviously see the carrots dangling
in front of them by PAS.

As for Parti Keadilan Nasional, no one is quite sure what
the party represents besides seeking the early release of Datuk Seri Anwar
Ibrahim. It continues to be vague on many national issues; worse, it is often
reluctant to offend PAS even on issues that clearly infringes on the rights of
non-Muslims and women.

By next week, Malaysians can be assured that the momentum
for election campaigning would pick up once the year-end celebrations come to
an end – and that 2004 will be another exciting year.