On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Goodies with polls in mind

More money was given to civil servants and pensioners, and there were plans to list the Felda Global Group’s commercial unit, Felda Global Ventures Holdings Sdn Bhd, on Bursa Malaysia, which would bring the settlers a windfall. All of this would surely lock in a huge chunk of voters.

There was more – the government offered a one-off RM500 cash handout to households with a monthly income of RM3,000 and below, as well as a RM100 cash aid for primary and secondary pupils (Year 1 to Form 5) and RM200 book vouchers for students.

Ex-members of the special constabulary and auxiliary police as well as widows and widowers would also receive a one-off payment of RM3,000.

The list was impressively long. Everyone got something, in the words of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. In his parting shot, he reminded the Opposition bench that they too would get better allowances starting in January.

But to many analysts, the Budget was tilted in favour of the rural heartland wherein lies the traditional base of Umno and the votes would go strongly to the Barisan Nasional.

The urban middle class isn’t likely to be happy with Budget 2012. While there were provisions that would benefit the middle class, such as the first-time home scheme, tax exemption for contributions to missionary schools and houses of worship and tax incentives for private schools, they do not see direct benefits.

The middle class, which makes up the 2.4 million taxpayers and carries the burden for 27 million people in the country, deserves better.

Although there are 6.4 million registered taxpayers, only 2.4 million are paying up. The rest are ineligible because they are either retired, have stopped working or have incomes below the taxable bracket.

Until the Government has the political courage to impose the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which would be a broad-based consumption tax, there is no possibility of a reduction in personal and corporate taxes.

It would have been unrealistic to expect any such tax reduction, though, but increase in EPF contributions from employers for workers earning more than RM5,000 could have at least brought some cheer to the middle class.

Be that as it may, the middle class must not forget the benefits that they enjoy and which are sometimes taken for granted, such as subsidies for petrol and essential food items, for instance. Also, keeping the sin taxes at current levels would certainly benefit those who need the occasional mug of beer or a pack of cigarettes.

The general consensus is that the Budget has created a feel good factor, and even opposition politicians have conceded this. It is a strong follow-up to the slew of political reforms announced by Najib last month.

The question now is when the Barisan will call for the polls. The challenge would be to take advantage of the momentum that now favours the ruling coalition, especially with surveys showing that Malay voters have returned to the Barisan.

It has been said that one reason why PAS decided to abandon its welfare state plan in favour of an Islamic state was because the party found its share of the Malay votes sliding drastically. Even Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim came out to support the implementation of hudud laws, with an eye on Muslim votes.

The remarks made by PAS deputy president Mohamed Sabu, describing communist leaders as freedom fighters, also scarred the party badly.

There is speculation of a November polls but this writer does not think it will happen. Between Nov 14 and Dec 14, school halls have been booked for the SPM exams and many teachers will be acting as exam invigilators, not as election officials.

The PM is also scheduled to perform his Haj, along with 28,000 Malaysian Muslims, and would be away from November. The last chartered flight out of Mecca is Dec 12.

The much speculated Nov 11 date, which is said to be Najib’s favourite number, also does not hold water or make much political sense as it is a Friday, which is hardly the best day for polls.

From Nov 29 until Dec 3, the Umno general assembly will be held in Kuala Lumpur. Here, the Umno president would make the rallying call to the troops, remind them to close ranks, let him have the mandate to choose the candidates and tell them that losing is not an option.

The monsoon season, from the end of November until end of January, which hits the east coast states every year is also a factor that needs to be considered when setting the date for elections.

Many Malaysians would also be away at this time, taking advantage of the holiday season to clear their leave and to spend time with their families. No one would be in the mood to listen to politicians.

Finally, in January the Barisan would have its final opportunity to win over Chinese voters, many of whom still favour the opposition. Chinese New Year will be on Jan 23 and in the weeks before the celebrations, we can expect the political drums to be louder.

The window period for the polls could be between March and May. Given the uncertainties of the global economy and uncontrolled external forces, Najib has little time left to take advantage of the feel good factors.