The Latest on Southeast Asia: October 13, 2022

On October 10, Malaysian prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved Parliament and called for early elections. The general election must be held by December 9, or within 60 days of Parliament’s dissolution, although analysts are predicting an early November date. Speculations of an early election had been growing for months, especially after the Barisan Nasional coalition of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) won by large margins in state elections in Melaka, Sarawak, and Johor over the past year. UMNO currently rules in an uncomfortable alliance with former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition. But the party seems to believe now is the time to leverage its political momentum and earn a mandate to ditch PN and govern in its own right. UMNO has been in power in Malaysia since the country’s independence in 1957, apart from a brief interregnum from 2018 to 2020 when the Pakatan Harapan coalition took power.

Unsurprisingly, members of the opposition coalition have criticized the decision, since campaigning and polling will coincide with Malaysia’s monsoon season in the northeast, which typically lasts from November to March. Currently, the main coalitions in the running are UMNO’s Barisan Nasional, longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Gerakan Tanah Air, and Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional. UMNO has named Ismail Sabri as its candidate for prime minister again, at least for now, but other parties have yet to announce their candidates. Conventional wisdom holds that Barisan Nasional will come out on top, but even so, the makeup of the ultimate ruling coalition and scale of victory are unpredictable. Adding to the uncertainty are several smaller but important political parties who remain either unaffiliated or could abandon their current coalitions. These include the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the youth-led Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), and some parties in eastern Malaysia.

Coalition politics in Malaysia have been historically messy and destabilizing, which is why Parliament passed an anti-party hopping bill in July that will for the first time prevent lawmakers from changing parties after the election. UMNO and its Barisan Nasional coalition have promised political stability if they stay in power, but there is a clear struggle for power within the party. This pits the camps of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri against that of former prime minister Najib Razak and UMNO party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. Najib was recently jailed for corruption and Zahid faces numerous counts of the same, though he received a political boost recently when some of those charges were dropped. Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz on October 7 unveiled an $80 billion budget for 2023 widely seen as an UMNO effort to shore up support among rural Malay voters by doubling social spending and subsidy programs.

Race and religion, in addition to age, are likely to be key determining factors in the election results. A constitutional amendment that took effect in December 2021 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, which means at least 5.8 million new voters will be eligible to cast their ballots for the first time. Voter turnout has fluctuated in the past, although the 82.3 percent turnout during the 2018 elections was one of the highest in Malaysia’s history, and high voter turnout has typically favored the opposition. The majority of youth votes in 2018 went to the opposition Pakatan Harapan, driven by dissatisfaction, including over UMNO’s corruption and Malaysia’s long-standing race-based policies. But after several years of perceived misrule, compounded by the pandemic, an economic downturn, and natural disasters, most voters seem to want stability above all else, which favors UMNO.
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