Malaysians head to the polls on Saturday to vote for a new government after years of political turmoil.
Three prime ministers have ruled the Southeast Asian country since it fought a heated, record-turnout election four years ago on the main issue of corruption. This time around, the economy — and the rising cost of living — will likely be the main battleground.
Meanwhile, climate change has become a potential disruptor after weeks of torrential rain and flooding have hampered campaigns in nearly half the country.
More heavy rain is expected on polling day and could reduce voter turnout, but officials say the election will continue — rain or shine.
Here’s what to expect.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yacoub, who came to power last year amid public anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic, aims to win a stronger mandate.
The ruling Barisan National Alliance – made up of right-wing political parties including the dominant UMNO – has promised to prioritize political stability.
Since 2015, Malaysian politics has been overshadowed by the 1MDB corruption scandal, which has seen billions of dollars in taxpayer money embezzled out of the country. It brought down former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is now serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.
“We don’t want to go backwards,” Isham Jalil, a senior member of UMNO, told CNN. We immediately want to focus on political stability as well as the development of the economy to compensate for unemployment after the epidemic. There is a lot of work to be done.”
But opinion polls show growing support for the former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan coalition. Analysts say the alliance of center-left and center-right parties could make a strong showing – even if heavy rains might discourage their supporters from voting.
He is also seeking re-election of Mahathir Mohamad, the 97-year-old former leader who was recently hospitalized with a heart condition.
His party ousted the president as prime minister two years ago after he became the country’s leader for the second time in 2018.
He would defend his stronghold on the resort island of Langkawi with his newly formed Malay ethnic alliance, the Gerakan Tanah Air, or Homeland Movement. And while he is expected to win his seat thanks to strong domestic support, analysts say he is unlikely to return as prime minister.
Overall, approximately 1,000 candidates will compete for 222 seats in Parliament.
High cost of living One of the biggest issues for voters in this election is government integrity, according to YouGov polls.
While the economy has managed to rebound quickly from the pandemic, the unemployment rate is close to 4% and remains a concern, particularly among recent graduates.
YouGov said income was “of paramount importance”, particularly among younger voters.
But even though there are 6 million new young voters out of the 21 million Malaysians eligible to vote, experts say this election will be much quieter compared to 2018 – and the outcome is by no means certain.
Political commentator Lee Soon Oh of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs said years of instability have left many Malaysians frustrated with politics.
“In 2018, at least there was a greater sense of enthusiasm among voters about the possibility of changing government and ending corruption – so turnout was historically high,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ll see a repeat this time.”
It will be a challenge to match 2018’s historic turnout of 82%, said Thomas Fan, head of the Bersih coalition campaigning for clean elections.
“This election (campaign) has been extraordinarily subdued compared to (the) last few general elections,” Fan said. “It could be due to Covid and the availability of other platforms for campaigning and following pronouncements online, or it could just be voter indifference to the chaotic political situation that led to this election.”
Despite increasingly severe weather in recent years, the environment has been a low priority for voters, according to YouGov.
But extreme weather could have an impact on the election.
Like most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Malaysia is prone to monsoon floods.
But last year’s floods were the worst on record – 54 people died and tens of thousands were displaced.
This year, heavy rains are back. At least 3,000 people have been evacuated from flooding in seven Malaysian states this week, according to disaster relief officials.
And with more bad weather expected over the weekend, experts say it’s unclear whether voters will turn out in large numbers – especially if torrential rains and flooding continue.
“If it rains a lot, voter turnout will be suppressed,” said Van of Bersih, who had previously expressed concerns about holding elections during the monsoon season.
“We are already seeing more severe flooding across the states and polling may have to be canceled in some areas which could affect voters, especially if the race is tight,” Fan said.
But some say the resurgence of floods just days before the big vote could quell voter apathy.
Bridget Welch, an analyst from the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute in Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, said that while turnout was expected to be lower, holding elections during the monsoon season could backfire on the government.
She said the heavy rain “helped PH gain more support by drawing negative attention to the ruling National Front coalition government and their power-hungry call for elections”. “It is (already) critical in areas where flooding occurs.”
The 15th general election in Malaysia is already shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable.
Experts agree that there is unlikely to be a clear winner, and no single party will ever be able to claim a parliamentary majority.
“In the end it will be a hung parliament,” said outgoing MP Charles Santiago. “There will be no dominant party, no clear winner,” he said, adding that this is “neither the best nor the most strategic time” for the government to hold elections.
Oh, political commentator, he agreed that a coalition government should stay in place.
He said, “UMNO achieved a huge victory in the recent state elections in Johor and Malacca.”
“The party is very good at attracting supporters on voting day with its resources and may have the potential to win the most seats but still have the potential to form a coalition government.”