With eye on state polls, Anwar may use Budget 2023 to boost ruling coalition’s prospects

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 24 — One of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s main goals when he tables Budget 2023 later today will be to project unity.

Despite the repeated public expression of support by his coalition partners, political analysts think Anwar’s position remains considerably fragile from the risk of his ad hoc allies pulling out constantly lingering.

The challenge will be to present a federal spending plan that at least appears to carry ideas from all parties in the Pakatan Harapan chairman’s so-called national unity government.

Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, partner at risk consultancy Vriens and Partners, suggested that would entail incorporating many of the policy proposals put forward by Barisan Nasional.

Neglecting to do so could have ramifications that may jeopardise PH’s prospects in impending state elections, when it would bid to defend Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan from a galvanised opposition.

“To some extent, Anwar’s Budget will have implications on how the unity government positions itself in the upcoming state elections,” he said.

“Setting a narrative will be key — the Budget will need to be positioned as one borne out of the current alliance between Pakatan Harapan and Umno. It’s important because it needs to have the buy-in of both parties, as opposed to just PH.

“If Umno is perceived to have no buy-in from the Budget, it may impact the Anwar administration politically. Critics can then use this to buttress claims that Umno are mere puppets within this administration,” the analyst added.

But Anwar is still expected to fulfil some of the reform-minded election pledges made during the 15th general election under Budget 2023, as he aims to appease some of PH’s more hardcore supporters who are reportedly still grumbling about the PKR president’s decision to align with the corruption-tainted Umno.

There is expectation that Anwar would want to beef the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, among others, a key agency for the new government’s anti-graft drive. Amid unhappiness about PH partnering with Umno, Anwar launched a public relations drive in which he painstakingly repeated his commitment to eradicate graft.

“It may be politically untenable for Anwar’s Budget to be a mere rehash of the previous government’s budget; therefore, there will likely be some changes that will aim to position it as one that is aligned with the current administration’s priorities,” Shazwan said.

At the moment, all the heads of the six states — Kedah, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan, Penang, Selangor and Terengganu — have agreed on paper to hold simultaneous polls. Members of Anwar’s coalition government have agreed in principle that they would not contest against each other, and could even stand as a single bloc.

BN controls Pahang while PH governs Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan. Unlike before GE15, pundits have shied away from making a definitive prediction on who will win this round, given Perikatan Nasional’s surprisingly strong showing at the November election.

Only predictions about Kelantan and Terengganu are considered safe. PAS, the most influential party in PN, has long dominated the two eastern states.

Oh Ei Sun, a fellow at the Singapore Institute of Foreign Affairs, felt Anwar would likely increase allocations for rural development in a bid to woo support in the rice-belt and east coast states, where PN dominated in last year’s general election, even winning seats that were once PH strongholds.

“So, it is the rural constituencies in these two states where the federal budget would have some bearings. For example, more rural development expenditure may sway some rural voters to the PH-BN side,” he said.

But all this will not matter much compared to how well Budget 2023 can provide quick relief to living cost pressure, according to many economists and political analysts alike.

Living standards remain at the top of public mind, a Merdeka Center survey that gauged Anwar’s approval rating released earlier this month showed, and Anwar has repeatedly vowed to address inflation and raising wages as a top priority of his government.

Three months after Anwar was sworn in as the country’s tenth prime minister, his approval rating was still at 68 per cent, while close to half of respondents felt his government was steering the country “in the right direction”.

That could dramatically change depending on what lies in his maiden Budget especially on matters relating to the economy, Shazwan suggested.

“This government’s raison d’etre is addressing the cost of living; there will be expectations to see how this is played out beyond temporary measures like Menu Rahmah,” he said.