By Tengku Noor Shamsiah Tengku Abdullah and Nisha David
Malaysia could see its first general election since 2018 before the end of this year following the budget presentation to Parliament on Friday, as critics question the need for holding early polls that could coincide with the upcoming monsoon season.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who serves as a vice president of ruling party UMNO, discussed government issues with the King during their regular meeting on Thursday, according to a palace news release that did not mention any call for a vote this year. UMNO has sought a snap election while members of its coalition and opposition parties have questioned the timing.
On Sept. 30, UMNO said Ismail Sabri would meet soon with the King to present a proposed date for the dissolution of Parliament to allow for an election by the end this year. The vote must be held by September 2023.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the prime minister did not set a timeframe for an election.
“The dissolution of parliament had never been talked openly in the past – not with other parties or with his own party. A prime minister will dissolve a parliament when he feels it is a right time to do so,” he said.
Other parties aligned with UMNO, namely the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, have announced they were against the snap vote because of the potential for flooding.
Leaders of two opposition parties also questioned the need for a vote now.
“My colleague’s area was hit by flood. This is only October – what will happen in November, can you guess? UMNO still wants to hold election?” asked Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, president of the youth opposition party Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), on Wednesday.
“Still looking for votes?” he asked, adding the government should focus on helping people.
On Thursday, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) expressed similar concerns.
“A government that refuses to listen to climate experts and let[s] the people be angry about holding the general election during the flood season is not fit to rule,” Lim Guan Eng said in a social media post.
Talks about dissolving Parliament in advance of a vote heated up even before the 2023 budget was tabled on Friday. The 372.3 billion ringgit (U.S. $80.08 billion) spending plan includes tax cuts along with direct cash aid for low-income households.
Administration officials have said the spending plan would focus on people and economic recovery.
Analysts have said Malaysia’s political instability has stunted the growth of the economy on top of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ismail Sabri is the third prime minister since the UMNO-led coalition suffered a stunning election defeat in May 2018.
Mahathir Mohamad was appointed as the seventh prime minister after his Pakatan Harapan coalition pulled off the upset, but stepped down in February 2020 because of an internal power dispute.
His deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, received the King’s appointment in March 2020 after building his own coalition with UMNO and PAS, only to see that coalition crumble.
Muhyiddin stepped down in August 2021 over claims that he did not have majority support to remain as prime minister.
Ismail Sabri’s appointment to succeed Muhyiddin meant that he became the first prime minister from UMNO who was not president of the party. This created divisions within the party, which further added to instability, analysts said.
As it is, UMNO had suffered a blow with the July 2020 conviction of senior leader and former Prime Minister Najib Razak for abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering. Najib is serving 12 years in prison after the Federal Court rejected his final appeal two months ago.
Najib’s deputy, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is UMNO’s president, faced his own corruption charges – although he fared better in court.
On Sept. 23, a judge acquitted Zahid on 40 counts of corruption linked to allegations that he extended a visa processing company contract in exchange for 50.56 million ringgit ($11 million) bribes. Zahid faces trial on an additional 47 criminal charges related to misappropriation of funds from his family-owned foundation set up to help the underprivileged.
Reports of infighting within UMNO, between a Zahid-Najib faction and an Ismail Sabri faction further weighed the already fraught coalition government.
Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, deputy managing director of market advisory firm BowerGroup Asia, said the turnover in prime ministers, together with the COVID-19 pandemic, have largely decreased clarity over the country’s long-term fiscal policies.
“Businesses are looking for a more stable government with a stronger mandate with less political volatility. Foreign investors have adopted a wait-and-see strategy for Malaysia and results from the next general election could indicate their appetite,” he told BenarNews.
The opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan has named Anwar Ibrahim, president of People’s Justice Party (PKR), as its prime minister candidate.
UMNO, meanwhile, lacks a definitive candidate despite declaring Ismail Sabri as its choice earlier this year, analysts said.
“PH has made their choice. It is Anwar. UMNO may pick Ismail Sabri because Zahid is too tainted. The party will not pick Mohamad Hasan [the UMNO deputy president] because it would hurt Ismail Sabri’s chances,” said Tunku Mohar Mokhtar of Malaysian International Islamic University.
Another analyst, Oh Ei Sun of Singapore Institute of International Affairs said that for UMNO, the pick could be between Mohamad Hasan and Hishammuddin Hussein, the defense minister.
“This is because there is no other presentable candidate who has a semblance of being accepted by the grassroots,” he told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, Tunku Mohar said the upcoming election could be about “peruteconomy,” a Malay term to describe bread-and-butter issues.
“It will be what concerns the people most. How to put the food on the table,” he said.
“Political and social concerns would also play some role but it is ‘peruteconomy’ that matters most.”