Malaysians vote for ‘hope, stability’ in hotly contested election

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Counting is under way in Malaysia after a hotly contested election dominated by the cost of living and the political infighting that has plagued the Southeast Asian nation for nearly three years.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob called the election early in a bid to restore “stability” after three prime ministers in almost as many years.

Ismail Sabri’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which is dominated by his UMNO party, is hoping to secure a simple majority of the 222 seats in the lower house of parliament known as the Dewan Rakyat. But it is facing a stiff challenge from Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan, which won the last election in May 2018, and Perikatan Nasional (PN) under Muhyiddin Yassin, which emerged out of that government’s collapse.

Polling stations in Peninsular Malaysia closed at 6pm (10:00 GMT), while voting ended in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak half an hour earlier. The results are expected in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Queues were seen outside some polling stations in Kuala Lumpur as a dawn thunderstorm gave way to overcast skies and drizzle. Voters also queued early in other parts of the country, despite the rain.

“There seems to be a quiet determination among the people to vote,” Thomas Fann, chairman of Bersih, a civil society group that campaigns for free and fair elections, told Al Jazeera from the southern city of Johor Bahru.

At 4pm (08:00 GMT), some 14.8 million people had cast their ballots, a turnout of 70 percent, according to the Elections Commission. While that is slightly lower than at the same time in 2018, the electoral roll is 40 percent bigger than it was then, and the number of votes the highest ever recorded in Malaysia.

Going into election day, analysts said the result was too close to call and made more complex by the presence of some six million new voters following the implementation of automatic registration. Some 1.4 million of them are young people aged between 18 and 20.

“To get to that level of turnout is because young people voted,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate with Nottingham University in Malaysia and expert in the country’s politics. “I think what we’re seeing is that young people really took this election in their stride.”

People started to queue early outside polling stations across Malaysia. The prime minister, who came to power amid political in-fighting, is hoping voters will give his Barisan Nasional coalition a mandate to lead the country for the next five years [Vincent Thian/AP Photo]

Campaigning in the past few days has been intense, with candidates holding informal chats with voters, walkabouts and larger rallies known as ceramah.

After voting on Saturday morning, Pakatan’s Anwar told reporters he was “cautiously optimistic” about the coalition’s chances, according to the Malaysian Insight, an online publication.

A pre-election survey by the Merdeka Center, Malaysia’s most prominent survey research firm, suggested Pakatan had the most support but would not win enough seats for a simple majority. An update on Friday forecast that the coalition was on track to win 82 seats with PN on 43 and BN on just 15. However, it stressed 45 seats were simply too close to call. Just over a quarter of seats are also in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak where the voting dynamics and parties competing are different to the peninsula.

The lack of any clear winner is likely to prolong the uncertainty surrounding the election by requiring parties and coalitions to renegotiate alliances, a process that could take some time. Welsh said that there were likely to be recounts in some particularly hard-fought seats, and that the Borneo states were likely to be crucial to the formation of a government.

Hope and change

Civil servant Adilla, who shared only her first name, said “stability” was important for her after the revolving door of governments and prime ministers.

Voting in western Kuala Lumpur, the 38-year-old said she had first thought it was important to choose a coalition over the individual candidate, but then decided the calibre of the representative was important as well.

“I want someone who has a voice and can make a change,” she told Al Jazeera.

Yun Koh, a 24-year-old voting for the first time in another part of Kuala Lumpur, said her motivation for voting was “hope”. She was at the polling station with her four siblings and her parents.

“I’m hoping for change,” she said.

Her view was echoed by Siti Sarah Ismail, a 40-year-old banker voting at the same polling station.

“I would like to see changes,” she said, explaining that she wanted a clean government that could take Malaysia forward. “We need new leaders. We need fresh blood.”

Anwar in a blue shirt and songkok, standing among a group of men and women after casting his vote. He looks relaxed
Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said he was ‘cautiously optimistic’ about his coalition’s chances after casting his vote in the northern state of Penang [Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]

Pakatan’s victory in 2018 marked the first time the opposition had won power in Malaysia’s 60 years as an independent nation, after voters turned on the once-dominant BN over the multibillion-dollar scandal at 1MDB – a state fund supposedly set up to drive development.

Then Prime Minister Najib Razak is now in prison for his role in the scandal, after being convicted in the first of five trials related to the fund.

UMNO’s president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is also on trial for corruption and is widely thought to have pressured Ismail Sabri, who is one of three vice presidents in the party, into holding the election early.

Unusually, the vote was also taking place during the rainy season when there is a higher risk of heavy rain and flooding. Voting was suspended in one Sarawak constituency because election workers were unable to get to all the polling centres because of flooding. The election in a northern seat was postponed earlier this week after one of the candidates died.

If Anwar does manage to pull off a victory for Pakatan and form a government it will mark a remarkable comeback for a man whose sacking as deputy prime minister and finance minister in 1998, and later conviction on charges of sodomy, shocked Malaysians and world leaders including the then-vice president of the United States, Al Gore.

Anwar’s dramatic downfall ignited calls for reform in Malaysia, and as his political star again began to rise, he was charged with sodomy for a second time and jailed. The 75-year-old was eventually pardoned after Pakatan’s 2018 victory, winning back a seat in parliament, which was supposed to put him on track to take over as prime minister from Mahathir Mohamad.

A man pushes a voter in a wheelchair into a polling station in Kuala Lumpur with police officers standing at the entrance and a queue of voters to the left
Kuala Lumpur was deluged in a dawn thunderstorm, but voters came out despite the drizzle and overcast skies [Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera]

But that plan also failed when the Pakatan government collapsed in February 2020 with Mahathir apparently reluctant to honour the agreement to hand over to Anwar, and UMNO trying to manoeuvre its way back to power. Malaysia has since had two more prime ministers – PN’s Muhyiddin and Ismail Sabri – with the infighting showing little sign of abating.

With additional reporting by Florence Looi and Ushar Daniele in Kuala Lumpur.

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