Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The fall of the Abdullah Regime

- The Malaysian Insider

Long after Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi leaves office in March 2009, political pundits and historians will dissect his years as the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and examine how he squandered a reservoir of goodwill over 48 months.

A few of them will point fingers at his young advisors — better known as the Fourth Floor boys — for wrong strategies and misplaced priorities. For doing too good a job of shaping his public image as a reformer in the run-up to the 2004 elections, a role he had difficulty living up to.

A few of them will allege that the interference by his son, Kamaludin and son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin alienated his supporters in the party and left Mr Clean of Malaysia's politics exposed to charges of abdicating his responsibility to kin.

Many will argue that his inability to act decisively and with firmness curdled the hope and respect many Malaysians invested in him.

Many more will say that by being a prisoner to the Umno psyche, it was only inevitable that he lost touch with the rest of the needs and aspirations of the world outside the ruling party.
A few of them will lay the blame squarely on former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad whose gush of attacks on Abdullah from mid-2006 weakened his standing in Umno.

The trend of opinion polls conducted by the Merdeka Centre between 2004 and August 2008 suggests that a combination of all these factors and more led to the drop in the PM's approval ratings.

But surprisingly it shows that despite all his failings and broken promises, Malaysians were still willing to believe in him till the eleventh hour.

Some 71 per cent of Malaysians still supported him in the week leading up to the March 8 general elections, lending some credence to the point that disaffection with Umno and Barisan Nasional, rather than Abdullah, may have played a big part in the rise of the Opposition.
The PM's reservoir of goodwill only started to empty fast after March 8.

Two weeks after the general elections, his approval rating slumped from 71 per cent to 53 per cent, in part this was in reaction to the election results, the calls for his resignation and the controversies surrounding the appointments of mentris besar of Terengganu and Perlis.
Today, his approval is just slightly over 42 per cent.

These opinion polls during the four year period toss up some interesting points about the Abdullah years and his weaknesses.

His popularity was at 91 per cent in November 2004, with the population still infatuated with his new softer style of leadership; his promise of improving the public delivery service and tackling corruption.

The numbers stayed steady for more than a year, dropping to 68 per cent in February-March 2006 when the government imposed highest ever fuel price increase. The price increases by as much as 23 per cent sparked small-scale demonstrations.

But within a few months his approval rating climbed back to the 70s and that is where it stayed until September 2006 when once again it dipped, hitting 63 per cent in September 2006.

This was around the time that Dr Mahathir's attacks against Abdullah for cancelling the crooked bridge project; for deviating from the former's policies and accusations of nepotism reached a peak. Interestingly, when Dr Mahathir began firing his verbal missiles, Abdullah"s popularity was 78 per cent. In a matter of six months, it was down to 63 per cent.

To be sure, there were other issues that were a drag on his standing. This included rising cost of living and the fallout from the government's handling of the conversion and burial of Everest hero Moorthy.

The popularity returned to 72 per cent in November 2006, even holding after several Umno members uttered seditious and incendiary remarks during the party's assembly. By now, it was clear that Abdullah's approval rating would never return to the 80 percentile range.

It hovered around 73 per cent in July when Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim lit the fuse on the V K Lingam video clip controversy, a move which forced Abdullah to propose the setting up of a Royal Commission and highlighted his failure to reform the judiciary.

But there was no running away from the fact that a sense of drift had descended on the country. Businessmen grumbled that nothing "seemed to be moving''; non-Muslim religious leaders complained that their rights were being eroded and there was a sense that Malaysia's decaying institutions were falling apart.

In December 2007, Abdullah's approval ratings touched 61 per cent, the lowest since he became PM. This was the result of a slowing economy hitting home, coupled with widespread disenchantment among non-Malays over the crackdown on the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf).

The ratings stayed in the 60 percentile range from December 2007 till February 27. That is why when Abdullah announced that he was going to seek a new mandate in March, there were puzzled looks around. There was a sense among his supporters that there were too many problems on too many fronts.

The Indians had all but deserted the Barisan Nasional over the demolition of temples and the Hindraf affair.

The Chinese were restless over weak economic leadership. But the PM, after being briefed that the economic situation would get even worse in the second half of 2008, decided to call for general elections on March 8.

He was quietly confident that the BN would return with its two-thirds majority in Parliament intact, no doubt bolstered by reports from military intelligence, Special Branch and Wanita Umno which pointed rosy pictures.

On March 4 2008, four days before the general elections, a poll showed that his ratings had climbed to 71 per cent, suggesting that the campaign hype and residual affection with which he was held still persuaded many Malaysians to keep the faith in the man who promised so much.

The election defeat emptied the reservoir of goodwill quicker than any of his mistakes or omissions could. His ratings dropped with each passing day after March 8, slumping heavily even after the 2010 transition plan was unveiled in July.

This was probably a sign that many Malaysians believed that he was living on borrowed time after Election 2008.

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