By Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Malaysia will go to the polls on Nov. 19, its election commission said Thursday, with graft-tainted UMNO aiming to shore up its return to power via the ballot box and 18- to 20-year-olds voting in a general election for the first time.
More than 21 million voters are eligible to cast ballots in Malaysia’s 15th general election, widely referred to in the country as GE15.
“The 15th general election is called to fill up the 222 vacant seats in the parliament,” election commission chief Abdul Ghani Salleh announced after a special meeting at the commission’s office in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital.
The party or coalition that wins a simple majority in the lower house of parliament, or 112 seats, is eligible to form the government. This year, Malaysia has three political coalitions entering the fray, instead of two, for the first time in its history.
Abdul Ghani said candidates contesting the election would have to file their official paperwork on Nov. 5, giving them just two weeks to campaign. The deadline to register for postal votes or absentee ballots is Oct. 23.
The weekend election date could bring more voters to the polls, political analysts said.
The 2018 election was held on a Wednesday after just 11 days of campaigning. This year’s two-week window will give political parties enough time to explain their platforms to voters, said Jeniri Amir, a senior fellow at the Malaysian Council of Professors.
“This time, it is a perfect date for voters from Malaysia, and [those] outside [the country] or their voting region, to come back. It shows that EC is taking into consideration a lot of factors,” Jeniri told BenarNews.
“It was expected to be on Saturday. The reason was also to have a higher turnout,” said Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, a professor of politics at Universiti Utara Malaysia.
Opposition members and others have criticized the timing, as the vote is taking place during the monsoon season, which typically begins in mid-November and often brings deadly floods and destruction to public properties. By law, GE15 could be held as late as September 2023.
Last year, monsoon-triggered floods killed at least 50 people and caused more than 6 billion ringgit (U.S. $1.3 billion) in losses.
‘The potent cure’
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved parliament on Oct. 10 and called for snap polls in the hope of ending years of political instability. The law requires the general election be held within 60 days from the date of parliament’s dissolution.
“With this announcement, the mandate will be returned to the people. The peoples’ mandate is the potent cure to manifest political stability and shape a strong government that is stable and respected after the 15th general election,” Ismail Sabri said.
His United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which had governed for more than 60 years since Malaysia’s independence, suffered a historic defeat in the 2018 general election linked to corruption allegations against its leaders.
But the winning coalition collapsed in just 22 months because of infighting, and Malaysia has been beset with political instability since.
UMNO returned to lead the government in March 2021, first by supporting an alliance it later pulled out of, and then by leading its own coalition five months later with Ismail Sabri as prime minister. But it was surviving on a razor-thin majority.
In August, UMNO’s senior leader and former Prime Minister Najib Razak was sent to prison to serve a 12-year sentence for abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money laundering after the Federal Court rejected his final appeal.
On Thursday, King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah called on all candidates to “conduct themselves in a civilized way by avoiding offensive campaigns and adhering to the legal guidelines and regulations” ahead of the Nov. 19 vote, a palace statement said.
Meanwhile, leaders of political coalitions seeking to run the government spoke out about the upcoming vote. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president of UMNO, said the party intended to remain relevant “forever.”
While Zahid leads the party – while battling corruption charges in court – Ismail Sabri is its candidate for the top office. UMNO is the largest party in the National Front or Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
“The National Front coalition may not be seen as perfect by some quarters. However, this political coalition has never stopped working for perfection,” Zahid said in a statement. “It is a continuous process to ensure that BN remains relevant, progressive forever.”
Anwar Ibrahim, who leads the People’s Justice Party and is the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition’s choice to lead the government, called for a debates among prime minister candidates.
“The debate has to be on the policy and principles and not on cheap allegations as this would give people the opportunity to evaluate the policy that each brings forward,” Anwar said.
Such a debate would feature Anwar squaring off with Ismail Sabri and former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Muhyiddin heads the Perikatan Nasional coalition, comprising his Bersatu party and Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
In addition to the three-way fight, another factor introducing uncertainty in GE15 is the estimated 5 million people who have the right to vote in a general election for the first time, after Malaysia lowered its voting age from 21 to 18, in 2021.
These youngest voters make up almost a quarter of the electorate. But it remains to be seen how they will vote, said Iskandar Fareez, a spokesman for Research for Social Advancement, a Malaysian think tank.
“We have seen inspirational youths who champion various progressive issues and advocate for institutional change in recent years,” he told BenarNews in December 2021.
“But we cannot assume that the entire segment will have the same inclinations. Whichever party that can entice them to march to the ballot box and exercise their right, will have an edge over their rivals.”