Why Malaysia has early elections and what is at stake

Malaysia will hold an early general election on Nov. 19 to try to end the messy politics that have plagued the Southeast Asian nation since the historic defeat of the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition four years ago. The opposition alliance that pulled off that shock victory fell apart after 22 months due to infighting, leading to the BN’s eventual return to power. Still, with multiple coalitions in the race this time, an influx of millions of new, young voters and the risk of disruptions from monsoon floods, the era of one party dominating the nation’s political landscape may be long gone.

1. What is at stake?

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and his fragile coalition are seeking to capitalize on recent wins in local polls and an opposition in disarray to improve on their four-seat majority in the 222-seat House of Representatives, with the vote coming almost a year ahead of schedule. A stronger mandate could enable the government to plow ahead with plans for budget cuts to improve public finances without having to make deals with the opposition — or even suspend democracy as the last prime minister did. Malaysia is a major trading partner of both the US and China, but foreign policy has received little mention in this race. However, the results may matter a lot to ex-premier and BN leader Najib Razak, who is serving a 12-year prison sentence for his role in the multibillion-dollar scandal related to state investment fund 1MDB. Najib has petitioned for a royal pardon, a move that his party supports, so a big win could improve the chances of it being granted. This would echo opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s pardon following his coalition’s victory in the 2018 election.

2. Who are the players?

The main ones are:

• BN: Remodeled from the Alliance Front in 1973 after the 1969 race riots between ethnic Malays and Chinese, it has won 13 out of 14 elections. At the height of its power, BN comprised 14 parties, epitomizing the country’s identity politics and patronage system. The 1MDB scam finally turned voters against it. BN now consists of Ismail’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress and the United Sabah People’s Party.

• Pakatan Harapan: The alliance brought to an end BN’s dominance of Malaysia’s political landscape. Its victory was hailed as a milestone for transparency, accountability and racial tolerance, but the government, led by UMNO veteran-turned-critic Mahathir Mohamad, collapsed due to defections. The coalition comprises the People’s Justice Party, the Democratic Action Party and the National Trust Party. It has also formed an electoral pact with newcomer Malaysian United Democratic Alliance.

• Perikatan Nasional: The grouping comprises two main parties — Bersatu and the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party — and is led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The coalition currently has 39 lawmakers.

• Three small parties that are expected to dominate the race for seats on the island of Borneo may become kingmakers. Gabungan Parti Sarawak currently has 19 seats, Gabungan Rakyat Sabah has eight and Warisan Sabah, seven. They are likely to partner with whomever wins the majority of seats in Peninsular Malaysia.

3. What are the issues?

Economic woes are expected to remain front and center as Malaysians struggle with rising living costs, a weakening ringgit and concerns of a global slowdown next year. Some 70% of low-income households in a World Bank survey said they were unable to meet their monthly basic needs. Others include:

• Stability: Every party promises to end the political squabbling that followed Mahathir’s resignation in 2020. BN has pledged to retain Ismail as prime minister and continue with the 2023 budget his government unveiled Oct. 7 — three days before he dissolved parliament, paving the way for a new election.

• Corruption: The 1MDB scandal is expected to take a backseat following Najib’s prison sentence. Still, it remains ready ammunition for opposition parties as UMNO leaders including party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi face dozens of pending corruption charges.

4. Any wild cards?

There are 5.8 million new voters after the government lowered the minimum voting age to 18 from 21 — and made voter registration automatic. Whether they will show up is untested. About 67% of Malaysian Muslim youths in a recent survey by Merdeka Center said they weren’t interested in politics, and 77% said politics was too complicated to understand. Another factor influencing turnout could be the annual northeast monsoon, which typically brings heavy floods. The opposition have criticized Ismail and his party for the timing as it risks diverting resources away from disaster management. Floodwaters late last year left dozens dead and led to more than 6.5 billion ringgit in losses.

4. How did Malaysia get here?

Mahathir, who was UMNO president for 22 years — and Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister — until his retirement in 2003, buried the hatchet with Anwar long enough to end BN’s uninterrupted reign and send Najib to jail. But the bad blood between Mahathir and Anwar ran deep, and it didn’t take long before their feuding caused the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government in 2020. Ironically, both leaders lost out to their own deputies — Yassin and Mohamed Azmin Ali — who led enough defections to replace them with the Perikatan Nasional government. The Muhyiddin administration didn’t last and he too was replaced by UMNO’s Ismail in August last year.

5. What is the outlook?

Despite the near-constant political instability and the damage inflicted by the pandemic, Malaysia has rebounded swiftly. Boasting one of the world’s fastest Covid-19 vaccination programs, the country surprised everyone by logging a 8.9% GDP expansion in the second quarter of 2022. The just-passed $80 billion spending plan for 2023 aims to cut taxes while still narrowing the fiscal deficit through more targeted subsidies. Higher energy prices this year have led to higher dividends from Malaysia’s state oil company Petroliam Nasional Bhd., which helped the government pay its ballooning subsidies bill. But the uncertainty over the fate of the budget has created fresh headwinds for the ringgit, already languishing at a 24-year low versus the dollar. A weak currency is bad news for Malaysia, a net food importer. – BLOOMBERG


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