In the reading of Budget 2018, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that come January, toll would not longer be collected at the Federal Highway’s Batu Tiga and Sungai Rasau plazas, at the northern Bukit Kayu Hitam toll plaza in Kedah en route to Thailand, and on the Eastern Dispersal Link (EDL) from Tebrau to the Customs and Immigration Complex in Johor Baru.
While Barisan Nasional leaders are positive the goodies packaged in next year’s national budget will tip the scales in their favour in the 14th general election, political observers are less optimistic.
History shows that ruling political parties have abolished tolls only to still get kicked out in elections, says independent pollster Ibrahim Suffian.
"Sure the abolishment of the Batu Tiga toll will help to ease my pocket, but if you extend the terms of the tolls on the other highways, we are already paying for it anyway,” said the crane operator who works in Port Klang.
"I'm not happy about the abolishment of the toll nor am I angry about it. Toll or no toll you still get stuck in a traffic jam anyway.”
Ibrahim said that in the end, whether the discontinuation of selected tolls would have an impact on the polls for BN and even Pakatan Harapan would depend on a host of other factors.
These include party machinery and preparedness, the electoral boundary redelineation, and race and religious sentiment, he said.
“By itself, it cannot win elections. It is only one tool in a toolbox,”
said Ibrahim, executive director of opinion research firm Merdeka Center.
BN Cabinet ministers have high hopes that the budget would shore up support for the ruling coalition in what many say will be a challenging general election, which must be called by August next year.
“The prime minister himself said the budget was strategic in its focus on different groups and areas,” said political scientist Prof Sivarmurugan Pandian of Universiti Sains Malaysia.
The new tolls policy goes hand-in-hand with tax breaks for the middle class and both are meant to woo urban voters, he said.
It is no coincidence that the tolls have been abolished in Selangor, Johor, and Kedah – battleground states where BN is anticipating an onslaught by the opposition coalition.
In Selangor and Johor, the highway snakes through Tebrau, Pasir Gudang, Johor Baru, Shah Alam, and Kelana Jaya – urban parliamentary seats that will be hotly contested for in the polls.
In the last election, BN retained Tebrau and Pasir Gudang with
majorities of below 2,000 votes.
Ibrahim does not believe that the termination of tolls will have a large impact on support for BN despite the money it will save for voters.
“At the end of the day, it’s incremental. You’re giving people back RM2 per day. It may bring back some support but is it enough to recoup the support that was lost after the (GST)?”
There is also the historical precedent of the 1999 Terengganu PAS government to consider when it comes to using toll as an election carrot.
“The Terengganu PAS government abolished toll for the Kuala Terengganu bridge. It was an extremely popular move. But in 2004, they still lost the state government due to other issues.”
The Terengganu PAS lesson should be a cautionary tale not just for BN, but also PH.
The opposition pact has been quick to pounce on BN’s promise, claiming that the ruling coalition was yet again copying its policies.
In its alternative budget unveiled two days before BN’s, PH said it aimed to abolish all highway tolls in five years by reviewing and renegotiating concession agreements.
“PH’s promises are coming in at a time when people are tuning out of politics and are sceptical of promises, especially from the opposition because they are not in power,” said Ibrahim.
Tolls and the GST were "big ticket" lures, said Ibrahim, which had voters asking if PH would be able to fulfil its pledges.
Sivamurugan argues there is no guarantee that the overall budget will translate into votes as much still depended on delivery and implementation.
“The election is still a way off and by the time it hits, people will be concerned about other issues. To what extent the budget will translate into votes is hard to say.
“The next five months will determine that.” – October 29, 2017.