15th Malaysian General Election Explained: Floods, climate change and years of political instability



CNN

Malaysians will go to the polls on Saturday to vote for a new government after years of political unrest.

Three prime ministers have ruled the Southeast Asian country since a feverish election with record turnout on the key issue of corruption was held four years ago. This time around, the economy – and the rising cost of living – is likely to be the key battleground.

Meanwhile, climate change has become a potential disruptive factor after weeks of torrential downpours and flooding have hampered campaigning in about half the country.

Heavier rain is forecast on Election Day and could reduce turnout, but officials say the election will go ahead – rain or shine.

Here’s what you can expect.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who came to power last year amid public anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic, is seeking a stronger mandate.

His ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) – made up of right-wing political parties including the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – has promised to prioritize political stability.

Poll workers make final preparations at a polling station during Malaysia's 15th general election in Bera, Pahang, Malaysia November 19, 2022.

Since 2015, Malaysian politics has been overshadowed by the 1MDB corruption scandal, in which billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money were embezzled from the country. It brought down former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is now serving a 12-year prison sentence on corruption charges.

“We don’t want to go backwards,” Isham Jalil, senior UMNO member, told CNN. “We want to immediately focus on political stability and let the economy grow to offset post-pandemic unemployment. There is much to do.”

However, polls show growing support for former Deputy Prime Minister and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. Analysts say the coalition of centre-left and centre-right parties could put in a strong performance – even if heavy rains might keep its supporters from voting.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech at a campaign rally in Kuala Lumpur.

Mahathir Mohamad, the 97-year-old former leader who was recently hospitalized with a heart condition, is also seeking re-election.

The 90-year-old was ousted by his own party as prime minister two years ago after becoming head of state for a second time in 2018.

He will defend his stronghold on the resort island of Langkawi with his newly formed ethnic Malay alliance, the Gerakan Tanah Air, or Homeland Movement. Although he is expected to win his seat thanks to strong local support, analysts say he is unlikely to return as prime minister.

In all, nearly 1,000 candidates will fight for 222 seats in Parliament.

Rising cost of living and the integrity of the government are the top concerns for voters in this election, according to YouGov polls.

While the economy has been able to recover quickly from the pandemic, the unemployment rate is close to 4% and remains a concern, particularly among recent college graduates.

Income is “of paramount importance,” especially among younger voters, YouGov said.

But although there are 6 million new young voters among the 21 million Malaysians eligible to vote, experts say this election will be a much more muted affair compared to 2018 – with an outcome that is far from certain.

Political commentator Ei Sun Oh of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs said years of instability have left many Malaysians disillusioned with politics.

“In 2018, voters were at least more enthusiastic about the possibility of a change of government and an end to corruption – so turnout was at an all-time high,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ll see a repeat this time around.”

Thomas Fann, leader of the Bersih coalition movement, which advocates for clean elections, said it would be challenging to match 2018’s historic turnout of 82 percent.

“This election (campaign) was unusually subdued compared to (the) last general election,” Fann said. “It could be due to Covid and the availability of other platforms to advertise online and track the hustings, or it could simply be voter apathy towards the chaotic political situation that has led to this election.”

People rescue a motorcycle in a flooded street in Klang, Malaysia on November 10, 2022.

Despite increasingly extreme weather conditions in recent years, the environment has been a low priority for voters, according to YouGov.

But extreme weather can still affect the choice.

Like most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Malaysia is prone to seasonal flooding.

But last year’s floods were the worst on record – 54 people died and tens of thousands were displaced.

Heavy rains have returned this year. At least 3,000 people have been evacuated from seven Malaysian states this week from flooding, according to disaster management officials.

And with more inclement weather forecast for the weekend, experts say it’s unclear whether voters will turn out in large numbers – particularly if heavy downpours and flooding continue.

“When it rains heavily, turnout is suppressed,” said Fann of Bersih, who previously expressed concerns about holding elections during the monsoon.

“We’re already seeing more extreme flooding across the states and elections may have to be halted in some areas, which could potentially affect voters, especially if the race is close,” Fann said.

But some say the resurgence in flooding just days before the big vote could wash away voter apathy.

Bridget Welsh, an analyst at the Asia Research Institute at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, said while turnout is likely to be lower, holding an election during the monsoon could backfire on the government.

Heavy rains “have helped PH gain more support by drawing negative attention to the ruling BN coalition government and its self-interested, power-hungry call for elections,” she said. “In the flood areas it is (already) crucial.”

The 15th general election in Malaysia is already becoming one of the most unpredictable.

Experts agree that there is unlikely to be a clear winner and no single party will be able to claim a parliamentary majority.

“In the end it will be a hanging parliament,” said outgoing MP Charles Santiago. “There will be no dominant party, no clear winner,” he said, adding that this is “not the best or most strategic time” for the government to hold an election.

Oh, the political commentator, agreed that a coalition government would remain in place.

“UMNO won big in the recent state elections in Johor and Malacca,” he said.

“The party is very resourceful at attracting supporters on voting day and they are likely to win most of the seats but would probably still need to form a coalition government.”

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