After two weeks of campaigning, Malaysians will cast their votes on Saturday in a keenly-contested election few expect to resolve the division that has plagued the country over the last three years.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is the vice president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, hopes Malaysians will back his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to form a government.
But BN is facing a tough fight – against the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and Pakatan Harapan (Pakatan) under veteran opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Pakatan won the last election in May 2018, a historic feat that saw UMNO lose power for the first time in 60 years as voters punished the party over the multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.
This time around, the economy and rising cost of living are among voters’ top concerns but Malaysians are also frustrated at the manoeuvring among politicians, which even continued during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Analysts say the votes of ethnic Malays, as well as the millions of new voters joining the rolls as a result of automatic voter registration and the lowering of the voting age to 18, have added to the uncertainty.
“What we have seen is a fragmentation of Malaysian politics from the certainties of the past,” said Keith Leong, a political analyst at KRA Group, a consultancy in Kuala Lumpur. “It used to be BN against everybody else. Now you have these three major coalitions and they’ve all had experience gaining, regaining and losing power over the past four years.”
Here is all you need to know about the Malaysian election.
Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy with voters choosing representatives for the 222 seats in the lower house of parliament, known as the Dewan Rakyat.
In each constituency, the winner is the candidate who gets the most votes and the party or coalition that gets a simple majority of 112 seats forms the government. The leader of that party or bloc generally becomes the prime minister. Between independence in 1957 and May 2018, that was always the president of UMNO.
Polling stations are usually set up in schools and open from 8am (00:00 GMT) until 6pm (10:00 GMT). Those in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak open and close half an hour earlier.
Most Malaysians value their vote, and there can be lengthy queues. Turnout in the 2018 election was 82 percent, and five years before that, 84 percent.
There are some concerns turnout this time could be affected by the weather if there is heavy rain on Saturday The last election held in November was in 1999 and the turnout then was 69 percent.
About 21.17 million Malaysians are eligible to vote and this will be the first general election since the voting age was lowered to 18. Automatic registration has also boosted the electoral roll.
The Elections Commission has said there are some six million new voters, about 1.4 million of them first timers aged between 18 and 20. At the last election in 2018, there were 14.9 million voters.
Voters usually get their fingers inked when they pick up their ballot paper, or papers if there is also a state election – a measure introduced in the 2013 polls amid concern people could vote more than once.
Usually, Malaysia’s states hold their elections at the same time as the national polls but this time only three of the country’s 13 states – Pahang, Perlis, and Perak – have dissolved their assemblies.
Results are expected by about midnight (16:00 GMT)
Multiple parties in multi-ethnic nation
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with a majority Malay population and large communities of people of Chinese and Indian origin.
Bumiputera, a designation that includes the Malays, who are Muslim, as well as the country’s Indigenous people, make up about 60 percent of the population, and Islam is the country’s official religion.
Other communities are Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sikh and animist. Christianity is also becoming increasingly popular among Indigenous people as well as among the Chinese.
The country’s political parties and coalitions reflect this diversity.
UMNO has dominated Malaysian politics since independence and had been in power without interruption until it was brought down in 2018.
It has long cast itself as the defender of the Malays and Islam but it is facing increasing competition from Bersatu, a Malay-based party in the PN coalition, and PAS, the Islamic party that is also in PN and has a solid base on the heavily Malay east coast.
Bersatu was established before the last election by politicians, including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who were disgusted by 1MDB and came together under Pakatan to battle corruption and abuse of power in 2018. Two years later, the relationships imploded with some abandoning Pakatan and Mahathir eventually setting up his own Malay nationalist party, Pejuang, which is the dominant party in the smaller Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA) coalition.
Pakatan is more diverse than the other coalitions and is seen as more “progressive” on social and political issues. When it comes to the economy, nearly all parties in Malaysia tend to champion free trade and privatisation, albeit with subsidies and price protections on staple foods and fuel, and special assistance for the Malays.
Pakatan is made up of Keadilan, a multiracial party established by Anwar’s wife to fight for reform and his release after he was tried on corruption and sodomy charges nearly 25 years ago, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a multiracial but mostly Chinese party, and Amanah, an Islamic party established by reform-minded former members of PAS.
There is also the multiracial MUDA, which means “youth” in Malay, and was founded by Syed Saddiq who became Malaysia’s youngest-ever minister after the 2018 election when he was named Youth and Sports Minister in the Pakatan government at the age of 25. His party is extremely active on TikTok and fielding a slate of six candidates in a loose arrangement with Pakatan.
There are also a number of parties in the Borneo state of Sabah, while neighbouring Sarawak is dominated by Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS). The latter tends to align itself with whichever party or coalition forms the federal government.
The race to be prime minister
At least three men have been named officially as candidates to become Malaysia’s next prime minister: Ismail Sabri, Anwar and Muhyiddin.
Ismail Sabri is one of three UMNO vice presidents and has been embroiled in a power struggle with party President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for most of the 14 months he has been in power.
Zahid, who is currently on trial for multiple charges of corruption involving a charitable foundation, is widely seen to have pushed the 62-year-old Ismail Sabri into calling the election early and when it came to naming candidates, it was Zahid who made the announcement while a number of those seen as supporters of Ismail Sabri were dropped.
Many voters worry that if BN wins and UMNO performs strongly, it could be 69-year-old Zahid rather than Ismail Sabri who becomes prime minister.
The uncertainty – real or imagined – has given UMNO’s rivals plenty of campaign fodder.
“Its leadership is a drag,” political analyst Bridget Welsh told Al Jazeera. “Most Malaysians don’t want to see someone with so many corruption charges as prime minister and they don’t like his leadership style. Zahid is a liability.”
Anwar, who is now 75, got his start in politics as a student leader but was eventually persuaded to join UMNO where he rose rapidly through the ranks to become finance minister, deputy prime minister and heir apparent to Mahathir, who was then in the midst of what would be 23 years at Malaysia’s helm.
Anwar’s career, at least in UMNO, came to an end in 1998 when, at the peak of the Asian Financial Crisis, Mahathir fired him, accusing his protege of corruption and sodomy – a crime in Malaysia.
After mass street protests and a lurid trial, when Anwar appeared in court with a black eye after being beaten in custody by Malaysia’s then police chief, he was jailed. His wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail launched Keadilan, which means “justice” in Malay.
Anwar was freed in 2004 but four years later was again accused of sodomy. In 2015, after a prolonged legal process that went all the way to Malaysia’s top court, the guilty verdict was upheld and he began a five-year jail term.
But as more details of the 1MDB scandal emerged, the political mood began to turn and former enemies turned allies.
Anwar and Mahathir agreed to join forces and, with Anwar still in jail, Pakatan ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is now serving a 12-year prison term after being found guilty of corruption in the first of five trials related to 1MDB.
The two had reportedly reached a deal for Mahathir to pass power to Anwar after two years, but the agreement fell apart amid persistent rumours that Mahathir had changed his mind, and manoeuvring by UMNO members disgruntled at losing power. In February 2020, the Pakatan government collapsed – to the anger of many who had voted for them.
After a week of uncertainty, Muhyiddin emerged as the new prime minister. Also a prominent figure in UMNO who quit at the height of the 1MDB scandal, Muhyiddin was a key player in the in-fighting that led to Pakatan’s demise.
The 75-year-old, who was treated for pancreatic cancer in 2018, saw Malaysia through much of the COVID-19 pandemic but was criticised for the hardship caused by prolonged lockdowns, border closures and his decision to impose an emergency and suspend parliament. More than 36,000 people have died from the disease in Malaysia.
Muhyiddin was eventually removed as a result of more political manoeuvring in 2021. His replacement by Ismail Sabri, a politician who had spent most of his career working in low-profile ministries such as agriculture and domestic trade, officially signalled the return of graft-tainted UMNO to the top table.
The hot seats
The election is one of the most competitive in years with some 939 candidates vying for a seat in parliament, according to the Elections Commission. In one constituency in the capital Kuala Lumpur, 10 candidates have thrown their hats into the ring.
Of all the candidates for prime minister, Anwar has set himself perhaps the hardest challenge by moving to the seat of Tambun in the central state of Perak. He is competing against Bersatu’s Ahmad Faizal Azumu, the youth and sports minister in the last government, who won the seat under the Pakatan banner last time around.
“It could end his career if he loses there,” said Thomas Fann, the chairman of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH). “But he’s a leader and a prime minister candidate and there’s a certain appeal to that. Most voters like to think they have a PM as their MP so he has an edge.”
Another prominent politician in a high-profile fight is UMNO’s Khairy Jamaluddin. The 46-year-old, who is the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and was most recently health minister, is running in Sungai Buloh on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, where Pakatan performed strongly in 2018.
Bersatu’s Azmin Ali, who drew brickbats over his role in the collapse of the Pakatan government when he defected from Keadilan, is defending his Gombak seat in the east of Kuala Lumpur, against PH’s Amirudin Shari. The 42-year-old is a newcomer to federal politics and currently the menteri besar (chief minister) of the wealthy Selangor state, as was Azmin before him.
Elsewhere, MUDA’s Syed Saddiq has mounted a spirited campaign to retain his seat in his hometown of Muar in the southern state of Johor. In government, he helped ensure the law lowering the voting age was passed and is one of six candidates being fielded by the party.
Malaysia usually holds elections during the dry season for good reason.
The monsoon, which arrives in November, often brings torrential rain and flooding.
Ismail Sabri has been criticised for calling the election, which did not need to be called until next year, during the monsoon and the hashtag #undibanjir (flood election) started trending after he announced the dissolution of parliament.
Flooding has already been reported in some areas of the country with thousands of people in shelters because of the rising waters. The weather has also meant soggy political rallies – although many parties have turned to livestreaming as an alternative – and some candidates abandoning campaigning to help their constituents deal with the floods.
The Meteorological Office has forecast rain and thunderstorms for election day with the Elections Commission saying the cost of conducting the poll would be more than one billion ringgit ($219.5 million) – more than double the cost of the last election and the most expensive in Malaysian history.