Predicting the unpredictable

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AFTER months of speculation over the date of the next polls, the stage is finally set for the 13th general election, which is widely anticipated to be the most closely fought, with its outcome highly unpredictable, since the nation's independence more than five decades ago.

Except for 1969, general elections in Malaysia have been pretty tame and predictable affairs until that fateful day of March 8, 2008, when a "political tsunami" unexpectedly hit our shores. That watershed event humbled the over-confident Barisan Nasional (BN) and brought Pakatan Rakyat (PR) to power in five states (which was reduced to four after the Perak incident in 2009), in addition to denying BN its conventional two-thirds majority in parliament.

Following that historic event, the political landscape in Malaysia changed forever. For the first time, the rakyat felt that their votes could really make a difference. It also dawned on BN that its grip on the federal government could no longer be assumed. And PR realised its journey to Putrajaya (taking over the federal government) was actually within reach.

As a result, we have witnessed arguably the longest, hottest and the most exhaustive political campaign taking place almost every day since the last general election. In other words, both sides of the political divide have come fully prepared for this high-stakes, cut-throat mother of all elections.

As its eventual outcome will certainly have far-reaching implications for the well-being of the country, many think tanks and research groups, both foreign and local, have offered their take on the possible scenarios that could follow the upcoming general election.

Some analysts have ventured to suggest that this could be the best chance for PR to wrest federal power from BN. For instance, the now-suspended chief economist of Bank Islam, Azrul Azwar Tajudin, outlined three possible scenarios — a narrow loss for BN, a narrow win for BN and a big loss for BN — and predicted a narrow victory for PR as the most probable outcome.

The Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI), a private think tank, however, predicted BN would win, primarily based on the assumed return of support from rural Malays, who were conspicuously absent in 2008.

According to ASLI's analysis, BN is expected to win 123 to 135 seats in the next election (a narrower victory), but could reach as high as 150 (two-thirds majority regained) if Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak can convince sufficient Indian and undecided Chinese voters to back the coalition.

ASLI's findings are consistent with the verdict of the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the analysis division of the respected UK magazine. EIU predicted BN would win the 13th general election based on its track record, Najib's reform agenda and his successful economic leadership.

As for the possible impact on the economy brought about by the election outcome, Morgan Stanley in its research report opined that if the ruling BN loses by winning less than 50% of the seats up for grabs, investors are likely to see this as a "negative risk event". It added that a loss for BN would affect leadership and government stability thereby "postponing the reform agenda undertaken by the country in the near future".

Nevertheless, a local news website quoted renowned economist Nouriel Roubini as saying that the Malaysian economy would weather the general election and stay robust even with a change in government. In the same vein, Azrul of Bank Islam speculated that although a PR win may have a short-term negative impact on the economy, the long-term political and economic effects will make Malaysia better off with the emergence of a genuine two-party system and stronger checks and balances.

Obviously, there are conflicting predictions and views on the possible outcome of the general election and its impact. And we cannot discount these conflicting predictions may be fraught with irreconcilable human prejudices and biases. Yet, as if the situation was not already fluid enough, BN and PR will be vying for the votes of more than 13 million registered voters, of which as much as a fifth will be voting for the first time, and whose voting preferences are unknown. This makes the already fluid situation even more unpredictable!

Common sense dictates that in any closely contested election, the fence-sitters, especially young adults — many of them women — and first-time voters are going to be the kingmakers. Thus, BN and PR ignore this growing political force at their own peril. In fact, the emergence of this new voting bloc in many of the so-called toss-up seats, in particular those in the semi-urban areas, is capable of upsetting the existing political equilibrium.

Similarly, in any high-stakes election campaign, sophisticated and efficient campaign machinery is essential. For example, with the help of extensive voter data, analytics and social media, US President Barack Obama's recent election campaign machinery was able to locate, persuade and mobilise voters, especially his supporters, to come out and vote for him. In our present context, this modern electioneering tactic is crucial in ensuring a high turnout and voting rate among supporters of either side of the political divide.

For weeks and months now, we have heard pundit after pundit declaring that the upcoming election could "go either way", even though most seem to predict a BN victory with a smaller majority. Yet, as the recent US presidential election has shown, predicting election results can be a risky business. Despite overwhelming predictions by the media and political pundits that it was going to be a neck-and-neck fight, in the end it wasn't.

In fact, the result was precisely what Nate Silver — a young statistician who has since acquired cult status — predicted for months, which was that Obama would win a convincing majority of the electoral votes. Not only that, by crunching polling data, Silver also successfully predicted the correct results in 50 out of 50 states, prompting MSNBC news anchor Rachel Maddow to ask: "You know who won the election tonight? The answer is Nate Silver."

Yet as our nation enters the final lap of the mother of all elections, replete with excitement, anxiety and confusion, we must never lose sight of the bigger and more critical question, irrespective of who wins the election — what's next? This perhaps is something not even Nate Silver can predict.

(Khaw Veon Szu, a former executive director of a local think tank, is a practising lawyer. Opinions expressed in this article are his personal views).

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Mar 11-17, 2013.

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