By Hareez Lee and Hata Wahari
Malaysia could dissolve its parliament within two to three weeks, paving the way for its 14th general election pitting a 92-year-old ex-prime minister against an incumbent hounded by corruption allegations, a source and media reports said.
This is the first time in Malaysia’s history that a government has waited this long to call an election.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, 64, is expected to dissolve the legislature in late March or early April and then announce a date for the polls, according to reports and a BenarNews source. His government’s term expires on June 15, and the constitution requires that the next general election be held before August.
This week, The Straits Times of Singapore quoted unnamed sources as saying that Malaysia’s parliament would be dissolved before the end of March. On Thursday, a Malaysian daily newspaper, The Star, also interviewed unnamed sources who said the dissolution would take place “on March 28, 29 or 30.”
“Dissolution as early as March 29 or 30. Polling end of April or beginning May,” a source told the Straits Times.
A source in the Prime Minister’s Department told BenarNews that parliament would be dissolved on April 4, a day before its current session ends.
It’s not clear when balloting will take place. The Straits Times said potential dates being mentioned were the weekends of April 28, May 5 and 12.
Najib, who assumed office as prime minister on April 3, 2009, leads UMNO (the United Malays National Organization), the party that has held power since independence in 1957 and heads the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving premier and Najib’s former political mentor, leads the opposition Pakatan Harapan bloc and has offered himself up as a reluctant savior.
If Pakatan wins the election and names him as prime minister, Mahathir has vowed to relinquish the leadership role quickly to another former protégé, Anwar Ibrahim. Two years ago, Mahathir quit UMNO and accused the party’s leadership of shielding Najib from corruption allegations tied to state investment fund 1MDB.
Possible reasons for late announcement
BenarNews sought the opinion of political analysts and historians over why it has taken Najib this long to make the electoral announcement.
Khoo Kay Khim, a prominent Malaysian historian, said the ruling party might have wanted to gauge voters’ sentiments before oiling up its political machinery.
Understanding the on-the-ground situation is crucial for UMNO and Barisan to win this election, said Khoo, a University of Malaya emeritus professor.
“Voters today have the knowledge,” Khoo told BenarNews. “Thus, those who are contesting in this election must understand the sentiment of voters. That is why it takes some time for the government to call for this election.”
The delay simply could be because the ruling party needed more time to prepare, another commentator said.
“They want to make sure they can win conveniently,” Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani said. “They have to win big.”
Test for PM
This year’s election could be an acid-test for Najib, who founded 1MDB in 2009 and served as chairman of its advisory board, analysts said.
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 since 2015, but the opposition has struggled to make a serious dent in Najib’s rural support, according to other analysts.
Early this month, Najib’s government began distributing about U.S. $1.6 billion to millions of low-income citizens as part of a government plan to spur economic growth, but critics slammed the move as vote-buying ahead of the general election.
Meanwhile, as the nation moves closer to the 14th general election, Najib is expected to present new electoral maps before parliament next week, according to the Straits Times. The last time Malaysia redelineated its electoral boundaries was in 2003.
But there’s no guarantee that the new electoral maps would favor the ruling party, analyst Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani said. He brushed aside reports that the changes would give UMNO an edge because, he said, its ethnic Malay supporters are concentrated in certain areas.
“First of all, who can guarantee that the Malays will give their votes to Barisan Nasional?” Azizuddin told BenarNews.
Azizuddin said the forthcoming polls would have many interesting “unique elements,” including Mahathir forming an alliance with Anwar in order to oust Najib.
Mahathir first put the 70-year-old Anwar in prison almost two decades ago. Anwar was imprisoned for sodomy in 2014 and has denied the charges, claiming they were politically motivated.
“Mahathir is working together with Anwar Ibrahim,” Azizuddin said. “Who would have thought so, right?”