#Interview* PAS leader says Najib factor is not key in voting

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PETALING JAYA (Dec 27): Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's approval ratings have been coasting at a steady 60% since he took office in 2009, but whether that is enough to take his weakened coalition through the crucial 13th general election is an open question.

For PAS, Najib is dogged by controversies that the people would not easily forget and this would negate his high score in opinion polls. Therefore, the Islamic party is confident that the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition would not be able to regain its precious two-thirds majority that it lost for the first time in the 2008 electoral contest.

PAS secretary-general Mustafa Ali downplayed the effect of the Najib factor on the election outcome. The key to winning the coming election lies in the candidate's local connections, he opines.

"In the elections, whether you can win or will lose depends on the local constituency – how big is your power base there and how strong is your candidate. Those two elements count more. It is not the Najib factor," he said in an interview with fz.com recently.

According to Mustafa, the way the party machinery and workers were organised and how they worked the ground in the local constituency still mattered a lot.

He believes that Najib's high approval ratings may be due to the people's perceptions as well as the clever use of Najib's appearances and public image.

"Maybe it is a perception because people see him out and about, but the Najib factor is not too much of a factor," he said, when it comes to the next general election.

In particular, Najib's popularity does not diminish the fact that the prime minister has to deal with the effect of his involvement in high profile cases, in the minds of the general public, said Mustafa.

"He may present a new kind of politics but he has political baggage," said Mustafa said with a chuckle.

Najib has been embroiled in allegations that huge commissions were paid for the purchase of Scorpene submarines from French defence firm DCNS during his tenure as the Defence Minister.

A close associate, Abdul Razak Baginda, had been charged with abetment in the murder of Mongolian national Altantuya Shariibuu, who was an interpreter in the submarine deal. Abdul Razak was acquitted in 2008.

Opposition politicians have used the case as a talking point during ceramah (talks) and the issue can be expected to be extensively aired during the election campaign.

Mustafa's views notwithstanding, Najib's popularity is frequently cited by political commentators as an important factor that will influence the BN's chances in the general election.

Its significance is seen as even more important considering that the percentage of people who are dissatisfied with his leadership has been consistently below 30% since 2009.

However, the BN has not fared as well in its approval ratings and Najib has been constantly coaxing BN politicians to work harder to win the people's support.

Soon after taking over as the country's sixth premier, Najib made a strong bid to re-brand the BN administration as inclusive by promoting the 1Malaysia concept as a way to foster national unity.

He has also tried to re-invent himself as a leader reaching out to the middle ground, instead of taking the rightist approach that has been the traditional Umno position.

Analysts have also rated his economic and administrative transformation programmes and the steady stream of financial handouts as positive factors that would pay dividends during the general election.

Discounting the Najib factor, PAS is putting its faith in its core election strategy of connecting with voters, and it remains to be seen whether this approach is the correct one for what may be the closest fight yet in an election.

In Mustafa's view, the coming election may be revolutionary for the nation but the political culture on the ground remains unchanged.

This is especially true in the seats where PAS has traditionally faced Umno in a battle for Malay hearts and minds.

"In PAS, we chose candidates based on their 'winability'. Their capacity to perform, their acceptance by local constituents and the 'X' factor," said Mustafa.

"Especially when PAS fights against Umno (in Malay-majority seats), the background of the candidate counts. It also matters if the candidate has a big family there, lots of friends or contacts," he said.

"It all counts. These people can vote across party lines if they like the candidate.

That will be the 'X' factor. It does not matter if the candidate is young, old or new – as long as they have these criteria, they will be elected," said Mustafa.

Also, he believes that the next election will be such a close fight that the idea of securing a "two-thirds" majority, which was the yardstick to measure the BN's election performance, will no longer apply.

"I think the people see a possibility of a two-party system now," he said. On the chances of Pakatan gaining power, Mustafa solemnly believes that it was a distinct possibility.

"For all three Pakatan parties, this is the closest to the central government (that we have been)," he said.

"It will be a close fight that nobody will ever think of getting a two-thirds majority. Whoever wins will win with a simple majority," he said.

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