RECENTLY, a currency analyst from an investment bank in Hong Kong was in town and wanted to speak to me about the political situation in this country. I guess part of his responsibility is to report on political risk, and a mutual journalist friend gave him my name and contact.
"What's the conventional wisdom on who's going to win the general election?" he asked, noting that most people have told him Barisan Nasional is likely to win but with a reduced majority. I told him BN certainly has the upper hand. It is the incumbent and it has all the advantages of incumbency, including control over most mainstream media outlets and a considerably bigger war chest.
"Will BN lose more states?" I told him that Penang is a sure thing for Pakatan Rakyat and Selangor is likely to be retained too. Kedah, however, is up for grabs because the PAS government there has some problems.
He was surprised to hear that Kelantan was not a sure thing. That state can really swing, I said, reminding him that in 2004, PAS held onto that state with a majority of one.
But there are possible swings that could go against BN too. Terengganu, which has fallen to PAS before, could swing back to the opposition and Negri Sembilan seems to be a state PR is confident of capturing.
The analyst, who considers Najib a reformist facing an uphill battle, wanted to know if he could survive as Umno president, and therefore prime minister, should BN's results be worse than it was in 2008.
In a word: No.
Actually, he doesn't even have to do worse. If Najib fails to win back the two-thirds majority in Parliament and if he fails to win back Selangor – a state where he is the state BN chairman – he will undoubtedly be challenged as party president.
Just as PAS has an internal struggle between the so-called "ulama" and "professional" factions, Umno has a struggle between the "1Malaysia" and "Ketuanan Melayu" factions. Najib, who coined the term "1Malaysia" might see his faction swept out in the next party polls if he fails to achieve the twin goals of a two-thirds majority in Parliament and recapturing Selangor.
"Is there any chance of an emergency being declared if BN were to lose?" he asked, adding that some people he spoke to were convinced BN would never give up power.
My response was this is not 1969. Malaysia is far more integrated into the world economy today than it was some four decades ago. If Parliament is suspended and emergency rule is enforced, Malaysia would become a pariah state. It's hard to imagine anyone prepared to win at such a cost.
And what are the prospects of PR winning? I said it's going to be hard for PR to win a simple majority outright, because Sabah and Sarawak are "safe deposit" states for BN.
"Nobody in their right mind expects East Malaysia to swing to PR in the elections," I said. "But there is no guarantee it won't swing after the elections."
If PR gets enough seats to almost form a simple majority, it would be in a situation where it could court some East Malaysian crossovers to give it enough seats to form the government.
So, if Najib wants to keep his position as party president and prime minister, he's got to win and he's got to win big.