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Losing the Malaysia GE14 by Hope

A benefit of the incumbency not enjoyed by the America Presidents is the power to choose when an election occurs. In a parliamentary system, the prime minister can unleash a snap election and forces the opposition to abandon all the best-laid plan of men and campaign managers to simply campaign to survive. As an election strategist, I am most often called in right after the snap election is announced and after the party realizes it's not ready. Through these battles, I have come to understand the reason why no modern parliaments will ever serve out its full term.

The most recent example of this adroit hacking of the democratic operating system is Turkey, where President Erdoğan called a snap election with 17 months left in the sitting parliament's mandate, despite his repeated assertion the election would be held in November of 2019. With the foreshadow of economic troubles and a decline in his popularity after a brief approval for his dealing with the failed coup in 2016, President Erdoğan seized a moment where his coalition's popularity was adequate for a victory. The snap election gave the opposition parties no opportunity to consolidate their resources and structure a functional coalition. Between a clutch of flailing opposition parties and a strong leader, the people of Turkey chose President Erdoğan, who might govern unto 2034.

A case closer to home would be Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's 2018 snap election. Unlike President Erdoğan, Prime Minister Abe just emerged from low popularity and with an upswing in approval, but emerging scandals over alleged influence peddling promised a steady decline and a swift drop. Given the state of chaos in the Japanese opposition parties, Prime Minister Abe decided on a snap election to secure his Prime Ministership. Same dynamic as Turkey, and the same result.

In Malaysia, AutoPolitic had been providing election services for three years, serving regional elections, training political operatives, and providing technical assistance. In late 2016, we were asked to model an election between Prime Minister Najib and Dr. Mahathir. Our initial advisory stated that, in a two-candidate national race, the data points to Dr. Mahathir leading by around 9% of the votes, and we expect a hung parliament with the need to knit a coalition together to form a government. We revised our advisory every month based on the social media data and, every month, Dr. Mahathir’s lead remained consistent and stable. In the August of 2017, we were suddenly asked to model an election where Dr. Mahathir was not in the race, and the election would be between the governing party and the opposition alliance. We advised the governing party has a 14% advantage over the opposition parties. After the election, our prediction was proven right in the direction of the power movement and, fortunately, wrong in the magnitude.

In a ritual post-election dissection, we came to the conclusion that the only scenario where Prime Minister Najib could win enough seats in the parliament lies in having the election in the early part of 2017 when the opposition parties were not able to resolve the inter-party conflict of interest and ideology. Prime Minister Najib’s not calling for a snap election and letting the parliament runs its course of mandate gave the opposition parties enough time to reach a workable coalition and approach, with Dr. Mahathir as the undisputed leader.

In the case of Turkey and Japan, the timing of the election was chosen to benefit from the chaos it’ll impose on the opposition parties. In GE14, Prime Minister Najib probably feel constrained by the 1MDB scandal and was rebuilding popularity by growing the economy through the various investment and infrastructures that are underway but require time to deliver the results. In delaying the election for the expected economic growth to balance against the 1MDB scandal, Prime Minister Najib was hedging a potential small and slow gain for a certain deficiency. It was a very rational expectation, but a wrong one. A mistake we had already proven with data a year prior to the election.

Just as governments are often paralyzed when dealing with slow disasters, most parties are like deer caught in headlights when a snap election is announced. Every opposition party should have an “In Case of Emergency" Snap Election plan and a small team of election strategists that meets regularly to update the party’s election plan in case it happens in the next 3 months. This is the first step for the opposition parties to minimize the incumbency power wielded by the government. Just as fewer parliaments will serve out its full mandate due to the need of those to stay in power, more and more opposition parties will continually be oppressed by being unprepared and unready to seize the chaos all snap election unleashes. If he could, Donald Trump would wish the 2020 election happens whenever he chooses. Such is the impulse of those in power and those who understand that luck is often a matter of time.

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