Malaysia Poised for a Tight Race in a Historic National Election

Malaysia Poised for a Tight Race in a Historic National Election.lelemuku.com.jpg
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob (left), of the United Malays National Organization, talks to a voter at a restaurant ahead of the country's general election, in Kuala Lumpur - (Mohd. Rasfan | AFP)

KUALA LUMPUR, LELEMUKU.COM - Malaysians will go to the polls Saturday in what surveys show could be a tight contest as an unelected and corruption-tainted ruling coalition seeks the people’s mandate four years after voters booted it out in a historic election.

Voters in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation will be looking for political stability after messy maneuverings during the last term, a lid on inflation as a recession looms, and clean government amid a slew of corruption scandals.

But if the latest surveys are any sign, Malaysia could see a hung parliament, instead of an UMNO win due to a divided opposition, as analysts had predicted earlier.

“[T]his Saturday’s Malaysian general election is unlikely to produce a clear winner,” market research firm YouGov said about its poll of 2,687 Malaysians, conducted Nov. 8-14 and released this week.

A separate survey, conducted by independent pollster Merdeka, showed similar results, reported The Straits Times. Both surveys showed that about one-fifth of respondents were undecided or didn’t want to say who they would vote for on Saturday.

Of the more than 21 million eligible voters, 6.2 million are first-time voters, a whopping 42 percent expansion of the electorate.

That includes 1.4 million people aged 18 to 20, eligible to vote in a general election for the first time after Malaysia lowered the voting age from 21.

As many as 945 hopefuls will be vying for 222 parliamentary seats in the Nov. 19 polls – a record number of candidates. The elections will also feature the oldest candidate to stand for MP – indefatigable former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is 97.

The election was called almost a year ahead of schedule. Barisan Nasional, the unelected coalition anchored by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) decided it was time, as Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob put it, “to manifest political stability and shape a strong government that is stable and respected.”

Barisan was ruling the country before parliament was dissolved in October but had in 2018 suffered its first loss in a general election over widespread corruption allegations.

But the Pakatan Harapan coalition that defeated UMNO and Barisan collapsed in February 2020 due to infighting. More political instability followed through the installment of two successive unelected governments.

Will Pakatan, now led by Anwar Ibrahim, win a second consecutive election? Or do Malaysians believe that Barisan, which caters to the ethnic Malay majority, can deliver a stable government?

And can a new bloc, Perikatan Nasional, another Malay-centric coalition headed by former PM Muhyiddin Yassin, make a big dent?  

Results of recent surveys may provide some clues.

Pakatan Harapan leads surveys

Opposition coalitions Pakatan and Perikatan have made significant strides in the last few weeks, surveys show, although early on, analysts had given Barisan a clear edge because it was coming off some significant wins in state polls.

Ibrahim Suffian, director of pollster Merdeka, attributes this to a decline in Barisan’s popularity.

“UMNO-BN has internal issues arising from candidate selection, and controversial leaders,” Ibrahim told BenarNews.

UMNO dropped several of the prime minister’s supporters from its list of election candidates, which alienated some of the rank-and-file. Some observers have even predicted that Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the party’s corruption-tainted president, will move to elevate himself to the post of PM instead of Ismail Sabri, if Barisan wins the election.

Some voters suspect that UMNO called the election for political reasons rather than to tackle the country’s problems, Ibrahim added.

YouGov’s survey showed that of the three main coalitions, Anwar’s Pakatan bloc is most likely to capture the largest share of votes, at 35 percent; Muhyiddin’s Perikatan would pick up 20 percent of the votes; and the UMNO-led Barisan bloc would take 17 percent of the votes.

“While Pakatan Harapan is expected to do well in urban parts of Malaysia, the substantially lower number of voters required to win a seat in rural electorates where Barisan Nasional and Perikatan Nasional are likely to perform well means that the parliament is likely to be very complex,” Campbell White, YouGov’s head of public affairs and polling, Asia-Pacific, said in a statement.

These surveys show no coalition winning an outright majority – that is, 112 of 222 seats – which means, two coalitions may have to have to form an alliance, or regional parties may have to support a coalition, or some combination thereof.

That means Malaysia could again see a revolving door of administrations.

Malay votes

It may all come down to how the ethnic Malays vote.

Merdeka’s survey polled Malays, who comprise 70 percent of Malaysia’s population, about their preferred coalition.

It found 35 per cent of Malays surveyed preferred Perikatan, the coalition that includes the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and only 28 preferred Barisan, which used to be Malay voters’ mainstay.

“PAS has relatively strong grassroots, while Muhyiddin is a leader that most Malay voters find acceptable,” Merdeka’s Ibrahim said, referring to the former PM’s clean image.

Perikatan has been able to eat into Barisan’s support in no small measure due to its inclusion of PAS in the coalition, and because it campaigns on the platform of Malay supremacy, according to Lau Zhe Wei, professor at International Islamic University of Malaysia.

“It slowly made its presence finally felt during the Malacca state election using ‘Abah’ – a reference to a father figure used by Malays to refer to Muhyiddin – and his clean image, for its campaign,” Lau told BenarNews.

“Perikatan’s presence in this election should not be taken lightly.”

Analyst Azmi Hassan said Barisan’s victory hinges on whether it can secure at least half of the Malay vote in 90 seats where Malay voters form the majority.

“I would say 50 percent is a nice number for them to gain the Malay vote in each of the different constituencies, because the other 50 percent will be split among the opposition Pakatan, [Mahathir’s] Gerakan Tanah Air, and Perikatan,” Azmi told BenarNews.

“If Barisan can gain half of the Malay votes on 90 of the 165 seats contested in peninsular Malaysia, they will win,” the senior fellow at the Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research said.

Key issues

Among issues that are important to them in this election, Malaysians want a government that will stem spiraling inflation, especially the rising costs of food and living.

Analysts said the possibility of a recession next year is very real. As James Chin, of the University of Malaysia, told Agence France-Presse news agency, “the already painful cost of living will be going up like crazy next year.”

Anticipating this scenario, the UMNO government presented a populist budget – including tax cuts and direct cash aid – before it dissolved parliament.

Pakatan is banking on Anwar’s background as a former deputy prime minister and finance minister to convince voters that economic restructuring is necessary amid what it calls “endemic corruption.”

But stemming inflation or economic restructuring requires a clean government that is focused on governance rather than its survival, so voters are also looking for stability.

UMNO was thrown out in 2018 over the alleged involvement of its Prime Minister Najib Razak in the 1MDB financial scandal. Najib is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence. UMNO president Zahid is under trial for corruption.

While seen as relatively clean, the previous Pakatan government isn’t a poster child for stability, having collapsed 22 months into its tenure due to infighting.

As for Perikatan leader Muhyiddin, many still find it hard to forgive the co-conspirator of the infamous “Sheraton move” that brought down the country’s first and only non-UMNO government, which was 2018’s election winner Pakatan Harapan.

None of these is an easy choice to make. (Iman Muttaqin Yusof / Fitri Hazim | BenarNews)

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