By Hareez Lee and Hata Wahari
Prime Minister Najib Razak on Friday announced the dissolution of Malaysia’s parliament, paving the way for what is expected to be a tightly contested general election within weeks.
Malaysia’s Election Commission will now set dates for nomination of candidates and the 14th general election, which by law must happen within two months after the dissolution of parliament and will likely take place before Ramadan begins around May 15.
In a televised address from his office in Putrajaya, Najib, 64, said he had had an audience with Malaysia’s king and received his consent to dissolve parliament on Saturday.
“In accordance with Article 55 of the Federal Constitution, his Majesty has given his blessing for the dissolution to take effect on Saturday, April 7,” he said.
Najib then launched into a campaign speech, asking voters to deliver a new mandate for the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence.
“We have delivered, and we will continue to deliver,” said Najib, whose United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is the linchpin of the ruling coalition. “We will develop this country from Perlis to Sarawak and Sabah … so there is no one left behind.”
The election is unprecedented in that nonagenarian former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has come out of retirement to lead the opposition in its bid to unseat Barisan. Mahathir led UMNO when he was prime minister for more than two decades.
“UMNO is beyond resuscitation, beyond turning around. It has become very bad, it has become, obviously, very corrupt. The leaders are corrupt. They don’t express the views of the people,” Mahathir told BenarNews in 2016.
In the coming election, the party that wins a simple majority in the 222-seat parliament will form the next federal government. Barisan Nasional currently holds 130 seats.
But this year’s general election promises to be a stiff challenge for Najib, 64, because his coalition will be vying against an opposition alliance led by still-popular Mahathir, 92.
Once Najib’s mentor, Mahathir quit UMNO in 2016, accusing party leaders of shielding the prime minister from corruption allegations tied to 1MDB, a state investment fund started by Najib. Mahathir has been nominated to serve as the next PM should the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition defeat Barisan at the polls.
For the past three years, Najib’s name has been linked to a scandal involving hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly stolen from the fund known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad, but he has denied allegations that he committed any wrongdoing.
Najib has acknowledged receiving close to U.S. $681 million in his personal bank accounts, but said the money was a political donation from Saudi Arabia’s royal family. The prime minister and 1MDB officials have denied the embezzlement allegations.
The controversy over the 1MDB scandal has stoked negative opinion polls against Najib, but the opposition has struggled to make a serious dent in Najib’s rural support, analysts say.
“This government is a credible and trustworthy government and fulfills promises, because. I believe politics is not just promises but the ability to fulfill promises,” Najib said in his speech Friday, claiming that Barisan had fulfilled “99.4 percent” of its promises.
Prime minister in waiting
In 2008 elections, Barisan Nasional lost the two-thirds majority that UMNO and its partners had enjoyed since 1957. Najib was sworn in a year later, in a move aimed at stemming the ruling party’s lagging popularity amid a slowing economy.
In 2013, the opposition made further inroads, winning 52 percent of the popular vote. But Najib and his allies ultimately held on to power by securing 133 seats in parliament.
Anwar Ibrahim, who headed the bloc that challenged Najib in the last election, has been in jail since 2015 on a sodomy conviction following a trial that a U.N. rights panel deemed politically motivated. He is due to be released on June 8.
Mahathir has pledged to relinquish the prime minister’s post to Anwar after that date should the opposition prevail in the upcoming elections.
The opposition bloc Pakatan Harapan is made up of the United Malaysian Indigenous Party (Bersatu or PPBM), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Amanah.
Malays and other indigenous groups account for nearly 70 percent of Malaysia’s population of 31 million, with ethnic Chinese making up 23 percent and ethnic Indians and others the remainder. Most Malaysian political parties are race-based, including UMNO.
But Islam-based parties also have a role to play, with some observers saying the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), which allied with the opposition bloc in 2013, could tip the balance in favor of the incumbents this year.
PAS’s 2015 push to implement a Sharia penal code in northern Kelantan state, its power base, fractured the opposition bloc at the time. It has since reformed with UMNO deserters and a newly formed moderate Islamic party.
Experts weigh in
Following Najib’s announcement on Friday, Malaysian political analysts expressed a range of views on the electoral prospects for both the ruling Barisan bloc and the opposition Pakatan alliance heading into national polls.
According to recent surveys of voters conducted by a think-tank, the Darul Ehsan Institute, the two sides were polling fairly evenly, but with support for Pakatan and its constituent parties growing to 41 percent against Barisan’s “static” 42 percent. Sixty-one percent of people surveyed by the institute said they supported Mahathir, versus 39 percent who said they backed Najib.
Young voters who had been so-called “fence sitters” were “now making their stand by choosing PH,” Redzuan Othman, the institute’s CEO, told BenarNews on Friday.
“Overall, the public still sees Mahathir, Anwar Ibrahim era as the golden period of our country,” he said, noting that 72 percent of ethnic Chinese survey respondents said they supported Mahathir, compared with 61 percent and 57 percent of support for him, respectively, from ethnic Indian and Malay respondents.
Analyst Wong Chin Huat, of the Penang Institute, said Barisan would retain control of parliament on polling day if voter turnout was low.
“If there is an increase in the number of voters turning up, it shows that people are angry with the government and that will not benefit BN and will foil attempts at gerrymandering,” he told Benar.
Ibrahim Suffian, program director at the Merdeka Center, a think-tank, predicted that Najib’s coalition would face an uphill challenge in winning the popular vote in this year’s general election. But Barisan would hold on to power through controversially redrawn electoral maps that were approved by parliament last week, he said.
According to critics, the altered electoral boundaries would give Barisan an unfair advantage by skewing the upcoming vote in its favor through packing more voters into districts currently held by the opposition.
“Not only BN will be given a new mandate but there is a probability that it will get back a two-thirds majority based on the approved redrawing of the electoral map,” Ibrahim said.
“BN will win more parliamentary seats and PH will get the majority in popular votes but will not be able to form a government,” he told BenarNews.