Spotlight - Malaysia: September 29, 2022

On the eve of a potential election in Malaysia, political parties are getting in order of battle. The exact date of the general election remains unclear, and it is not due until September 2023. However, recent cues indicate that Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob could dissolve parliament around October 8, the day after his government presents its 2023 budget. The budget presentation was indeed brought forward three weeks from its original scheduled date of October 28. This strategy was used by then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1999. This time, the announcement of a budget that attempts to satisfy the expectations of all of Malaysia’s ethnic communities is a way to ensure votes from the Malay population, as well as the country’s Indian and Chinese minorities. But this announcement could now be followed by an immediate dissolution of parliament, cutting off all debate on the budget. The election would then have to be held within 60 days, including approximately ten days of campaigning.
If not held in November, elections will likely take place in March, toward the end of the monsoon season and after the celebration of the Lunar New Year in late January but before the beginning of Ramadan in late March. This strategy would be a way for the government to make use of the good mood of the festive months and the many opportunities to hand out cash assistance related to the celebrations.
The emergence of a third Malay coalition, Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA), formed by Mahathir Mohamad, has pushed the entire political spectrum further to the right. In these coming elections, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition will have two main adversaries: the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition led by Bersatu, the party of former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and the GTA. The Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia remains undecided on its allegiance between PN and BN; however, members of the UMNO leadership have already stated that they are confident in their capacity to win without their Islamist counterpart.
With Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s recent acquittal on 40 charges of bribery in his corruption case, and despite the prosecution’s appeal, the UMNO president will likely be the poster boy for this election, casting aside current prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. For that reason, rumor has it that Ismail Sabri could instead attempt to delay the election to buy time to find new allies in a tense and highly divided UMNO, or even to try to recruit back former UMNO leaders who had fled the party in 2018 and could return to join his faction.
Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C