Penang mulls snap polls as referendum on Guan Eng charges

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng faces two corruption charges in court. — Picture by K.E.Ooi
Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng faces two corruption charges in court. — Picture by K.E.Ooi

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GEORGE TOWN, July 11 — Penang leaders are discussing the possibility of holding snap elections to gauge public sentiment after Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was charged with corruption, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Although the DAP and the state executive council unanimously voted for Lim to remain in office pending the outcome of his case, Penang DAP and its Pakatan Harapan allies believe that a statewide election would determine support both for the pact and Lim’s leadership.

“We are discussing it as an option because by having state elections, we can let the people decide if they still want the Pakatan Harapan state government in light of these false allegations against the chief minister,” a DAP leader told Malay Mail Online on condition of anonymity.

He said a state election would also show if Penang voters were for or against the charges against Lim, which Pakatan Harapan leaders have alleged were part of a Barisan Nasional (BN) ploy to sully the image of the state administration.

When contacted, Penang’s two deputy chief ministers Datuk Mohd Rashid Hasnon and P. Ramasamy confirmed the matter was discussed but said no decision has been made.

“It is still in preliminary discussions. It is only one of the options we are looking at due to the court cases, but no decision has been made yet,” said Mohd Rashid.

“It is just in discussions, no decision has been made yet. But for now, we have to strengthen the opposition front first,” said Ramasamy, who is also DAP deputy secretary-general.

There may not even be a need for snap state elections, he added, if Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak decides to call for nationwide polls next year.

The Penang leader was referring to speculation that Najib, buoyed by BN recent victories in the Sarawak state election and two by-elections in the peninsula, may call for early polls before the current parliamentary term expires mid-2018.

State-level polls are typically held simultaneously with parliamentary elections but Mohd Rashid noted that this does not have to be the case if Penang decides to dissolve its assembly ahead of the 14th general election.

Deputy Chief Minister I Datuk Mohd Rashid Hasnon said they need to gauge the people's support first before making any decisions. — Picture by K.E.Ooi
Deputy Chief Minister I Datuk Mohd Rashid Hasnon said they need to gauge the people's support first before making any decisions. — Picture by K.E.Ooi

“We can choose not to dissolve at the same time as Parliament if we already had the state polls prior to that,” he said.

Two political observers, however, said snap elections in Penang were unnecessary and could even backfire on the Pakatan Harapan leadership.

“People will react to it because most people are thinking that the general elections is coming soon so if the state decides to dissolve before Parliament, this means the perception may be that the state is guilty of the accusations against it,” said Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, an associate professor at the College of Law, Government and International Studies in Universiti Utara Malaysia.

“We are still uncertain of how people are going to react to these charges against Lim especially when he has always talked about good governance so some may even see these charges as a betrayal of their trust in the state government,” he said.

Dr Lim Teck Ghee said voters may view snap elections as a political ploy by Pakatan Harapan.

“There is nothing to be gained either for the opposition or the BN to insist on a snap (state) elections simply because of the issue,” said the Centre for Policy Initiatives director.

He said it was better for the Penang leadership to wait for the next general election as voters would still likely remember the charges against Lim when they cast their ballots.

University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute director James Chin, however, disagreed, saying the charges against Lim had angered voters in Penang so much that an early election would likely see DAP score a stunning victory.

“People are angry that Lim got charged and almost everyone thinks it is a political arrest,” he said.

“Snap election is the only way Penangites can send a political message to Najib that they are unhappy,” he added.

Lim was charged with abuse of power and corruption at the Penang High Court last month over the alleged approval of a rezoning application by Magnificent Emblem to convert agricultural land to residential and over his purchase of his RM2.8 million house from businesswoman Phang Li Koon at below market value of RM4.27 million.

He is facing a jail term of not more than 20 years and a fine of five times the value of gratification or RM10,000, whichever is higher, if convicted for the first charge and up to two years’ imprisonment, a fine and forfeiture of property upon conviction for the second charge.

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