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Analysis | Why Malaysia is having an early election and what’s at stake

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Malaysia’s early general election was called to try to end the messy politics that have plagued the Southeast Asian nation since the historic defeat of the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition four years ago. The opposition alliance that won that shock victory fell apart after 22 months due to infighting, leading to the eventual return of the BN to power. But with multiple coalitions in the race this time around and millions of young people newly eligible to vote, the era of one party dominating the political landscape is long gone. Indeed, the November 19 vote ended with a hung parliament, leading to horse-trading rounds as parties attempted to form a governing coalition.

1. What was at stake to enter it?

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and his fragile coalition have sought to capitalize on recent victories in local polls and a shambolic opposition to improve their four-seat majority in the 222-seat House of Representatives, with the vote coming almost a year ahead of schedule. A stronger mandate could have allowed the government to proceed with austerity plans to improve public finances without making deals with the opposition – or even suspending democracy, as the previous prime minister did. Malaysia is a major trading partner of both the US and China, but foreign policy received little attention in the race. However, the results are of great significance to former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is serving a 12-year prison sentence for his role in the billion-dollar scandal involving the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB. Najib has petitioned for a royal pardon, a move his BN party supports, so a major role in the next government would increase the likelihood of it being granted. That would reflect opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s pardon after his coalition’s victory in the 2018 election.

• BN: Reformed from the Alliance Front after the race riots between ethnic Malays and Chinese in 1973, it has won 13 of the 14 previous elections. At the height of its power, BN consisted of 14 parties, embodying the country’s identity politics and patronage system. The 1MDB scam eventually turned on voters. BN now consists of Ismail’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress and the United Sabah People’s Party.

• Pakatan Harapan: This alliance, now led by Anwar, ended BN’s dominance in Malaysia’s political landscape. The victory was then hailed as a milestone for transparency, accountability and racial tolerance, but the government, led by UMNO veteran and critic Mahathir Mohamad, collapsed over apostasy. The coalition consists of the People’s Justice Party, the Democratic Action Party and the National Trust Party. It has also made an electoral pact with newcomer Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, which won one seat this year.

• Perikatan Nasional: The group consists of two main parties — Bersatu and the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party — and is led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The pro-Malaysian Islamist coalition increased its number of seats to 73 this year from 39 legislators in the last parliament.

• Three small parties dominate the island of Borneo. Gabungan Parti Sarawak won 23 seats, four more than in the previous parliament; Gabungan Rakyat Sabah won six, two down; and Warisan Sabah only 3, instead of seven. They are likely to team up with whoever wins the majority of seats in Peninsular Malaysia.

Economic woes took center stage as Malaysians grapple with a rising cost of living, a weakening ringgit and concerns about a global growth slowdown next year. About 70% of low-income households said in a World Bank survey that they could not meet their basic monthly needs. Others include:

• Stability: Each party vows to end the political bickering that followed Mahathir’s resignation in 2020. BN has pledged to keep Ismail as prime minister and go ahead with the 2023 budget his government unveiled on October 7 – three days before he dissolved parliament and the road to new elections.

• Corruption: the 1MDB scandal is expected to fade into the background after Najib’s jail term. Still, it remains ready ammunition for opposition parties as UMNO leaders, including party chairman Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, face dozens of pending corruption charges.

There were 5.8 million new voters after the government lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18 and made voter registration automatic. But about 67% of Malaysian Muslim youth said in a recent survey by Merdeka Center that they were not interested in politics, and 77% said politics was too complicated to understand.

5. How did Malaysia get here?

Mahathir, who served as president of UMNO for 22 years – and Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister – until his retirement in 2003, buried the hatchet with Anwar long enough to end BN’s uninterrupted reign and send Najib to jail to send. But the bad blood between Mahathir and Anwar ran deep, and it wasn’t long before their feud caused the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government in 2020. Ironically, both leaders lost out to their own deputies — Muhyiddin and Mohamed Azmin Ali — who led enough defections to replace them with the Perikatan Nasional government. The Muhyiddin government did not last and he too was replaced by UMNO’s Ismail in August last year.

6. What is the country’s outlook?

Despite the near-constant political instability and the damage inflicted by the pandemic, Malaysia has recovered quickly. With one of the world’s fastest Covid-19 vaccination programs, the country surprised everyone by recording 8.9% GDP growth in the second quarter of 2022. more targeted grants. Higher energy prices this year have led to higher dividends from Malaysia’s state oil company Petroliam Nasional Bhd. But uncertainty over the fate of the budget has created new headwinds for the ringgit, which has already languished at a 24-year low against the dollar. A weak currency is bad news for Malaysia, a net food importer.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com

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