Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton's political strategist James Carville had a simple message for his candidate.
He thought Clinton could win if he focused on one important factor.
"The economy, stupid," was written on a sign to remind the internal campaign workers what to keep in mind.
It worked, and Clinton became president.
And what about the ruling coalition in Malaysia?
According to Rafizi Ramli, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in Malaysia still has a chance at victory in the next general election, which will be held in 2023.
Despite cratering opinion polls and losing multiple by-elections, Rafizi believes that there is a path to ensuring that the PH does not become a one-term coalition, and the answer lies in the Carville Strategy.
Succession is on everyone's minds
Ramli is no longer in politics, having announced in December 2019 that he would leave to go private, with a focus on machine learning and the Internet of Things.
But as the vice-president of Malaysia's People's Justice Party (PKR), a component of PH, a sizeable crowd of around 300 people turned up to hear him speak at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Regional Outlook Forum on Jan. 9 2020.
Rafizi described the "euphoria" of PH's historic victory in 2018, ending decades of rule by the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, with ratings in the "high 80s".
But 18 months on, Rafizi said that approval ratings are as "low as Najib's government", to some laughter.
He acknowledged that the current topic that dominates others is the question of Anwar Ibrahim's succession to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
No set date for transition
Mentioning that he was the person who actually drafted the succession agreement, Rafizi laid out the the clauses agreed on by all four parties in PH.
For Mahathir to be named as the PH's candidate for Prime Minister, the parties agreed on the following:
- Upon winning the election, Anwar needed to be given a royal pardon so he could participate in politics, as he was in prison at the time.
- The announcement would be made after agreeing on the seat allocation for candidates.
- The party needed to agree on a policy platform.
There was no hard and fast date for Mahathir to step down and hand over the top job to Anwar, although Mahathir himself publicly mentioned a "two-year" tenure.
However, he has since claimed otherwise.
Rafizi: Succession? My best guess is the first half of 2021.
Rafizi doesn't think that Mahathir will step down in 2020.
Rafizi pointed out that Mahathir has publicly stated that he would not step down before the conclusion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings held in Malaysia, which are scheduled to last until November 2020.
"To me, it's a straightforward answer that he will not relinquish (his position) in May 2020," said Rafizi.
He also pointed out that the Democratic Action Party (PH) and AMANAH, other components of the PH, would not want to "rock the boat" and push for a transition this year.
However, Rafizi also believes that Mahathir would not continue serving for a full term, even if some Malaysian politicians have called for it, including Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali.
"My gut feeling is that the transition will take place in the first half of 2021," he said.
He added that that if there still was no definite transition date after APEC concluded, public pressure would grow and force the party leaders to impose a date on Mahathir.
How can Pakatan Harapan win?
Given PH's current dearth of support, Rafizi said that it would have a hard time fighting an opposition coalition of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
"If there is an election today, given all the numbers, the opposition UMNO and PAS combined should be able to form a simple majority government," he said.
But Rafizi pointed out that he was faced with the same question in 2016, when PH was just launched.
He said that it was hard to imagine PH winning just two years later.
But with the spread of social media and easier ways to connect with the voters, things could change.
"Two years is perhaps just enough the right time you need to turn around a political crisis," he said.
Rafizi added that he believes the next election will be decided by the economy and the pragmatic voter.
A question of demographics
To illustrate his point, Rafizi mentioned that he predicted PH to win as early as 2017.
Even though people called him crazy, he pointed out a few key facts.
First, historically, the coalition that wins and forms a government in Malaysia has won the majority of the seats in Peninsular Malaysia.
"Out of those 165 seats, there are almost 40 seats that are foregone conclusion, will not be won by UMNO because they are majority non-Malay seats."
Rafizi said that these seats will go to the PKR or the DAP.
On the other hand, there are about 70 seats that are Malay-majority, with more than 70 per cent Malay voters, which will be won by UMNO.
Rafizi said: "So the battle for the government of Malaysia is usually decided by about 50 mixed, semi-urban seats. We won the last general election because we won the marginal 40 seats."
Of the voters in these seats, Rafizi said they were "economy voters", whether they were Malay, Chinese or Indian.
"They are the ones who are most affected by bread-and-butter issues."
How Anwar can win
This, according to Rafizi, is how the PH can make their comeback.
If Anwar does take over within a year, Rafizi said: "Timewise, there is enough time to turn things around provided Anwar can put together a credible economic team. It will all be decided by how Anwar can deliver in that two years."
However, he needed to be "radical enough" to set aside lobbyists and other vested interests to form a professional and credible Cabinet.
"If he can do that, and he focuses on a strong economic delivery, he focuses on and demonstrates early success in addressing some of the key pain points of the economy, number one underemployment, number two low wages.
Also if he can articulate convincingly in that two years a pathway to (a) high income economy, then within two years, it is enough time to turn around the party sentiment and win the seats. Although they are Malay-majority seats, a lot of the voters are actually economic voters who will vote depending on how the economy is."
Top image from AFP.