Why Malaysia’s 2022 election is so difficult to predict

Correction

This story was amended to remove the reference to Sabah state elections.

After two weeks of campaigning, Malaysians will cast their votes on Saturday in a keenly-contested election few expect to resolve the division that has plagued the country over the last three years.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is the vice president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, hopes Malaysians will back his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to form a government.

But BN is facing a tough fight – against the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and Pakatan Harapan (Pakatan) under veteran opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Pakatan won the last election in May 2018, a historic feat that saw UMNO lose power for the first time in 60 years as voters punished the party over the multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.

This time around, the economy and rising cost of living are among voters’ top concerns but Malaysians are also frustrated at the manoeuvring among politicians, which even continued during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Analysts say the votes of ethnic Malays, as well as the millions of new voters joining the rolls as a result of automatic voter registration and the lowering of the voting age to 18, have added to the uncertainty.

“What we have seen is a fragmentation of Malaysian politics from the certainties of the past,” said Keith Leong, a political analyst at KRA Group, a consultancy in Kuala Lumpur. “It used to be BN against everybody else. Now you have these three major coalitions and they’ve all had experience gaining, regaining and losing power over the past four years.”

Here is all you need to know about the Malaysian election.

The basics

Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy with voters choosing representatives for the 222 seats in the lower house of parliament, known as the Dewan Rakyat.

In each constituency, the winner is the candidate who gets the most votes and the party or coalition that gets a simple majority of 112 seats forms the government. The leader of that party or bloc generally becomes the prime minister. Between independence in 1957 and May 2018, that was always the president of UMNO.

Polling stations are usually set up in schools and open from 8am (00:00 GMT) until 6pm (10:00 GMT). Those in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak open and close half an hour earlier.

Most Malaysians value their vote, and there can be lengthy queues. Turnout in the 2018 election was 82 percent, and five years before that, 84 percent.

There are some concerns turnout this time could be affected by the weather if there is heavy rain on Saturday The last election held in November was in 1999 and the turnout then was 69 percent.

About 21.17 million Malaysians are eligible to vote and this will be the first general election since the voting age was lowered to 18. Automatic registration has also boosted the electoral roll.

The Elections Commission has said there are some six million new voters, about 1.4 million of them first timers aged between 18 and 20. At the last election in 2018, there were 14.9 million voters.

Voters usually get their fingers inked when they pick up their ballot paper, or papers if there is also a state election – a measure introduced in the 2013 polls amid concern people could vote more than once.

Usually, Malaysia’s states hold their elections at the same time as the national polls but this time only three of the country’s 13 states – Pahang, Perlis, and Perak  – have dissolved their assemblies.

Multiple parties in multi-ethnic nation

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with a majority Malay population and large communities of people of Chinese and Indian origin.

Bumiputera, a designation that includes the Malays, who are Muslim, as well as the country’s Indigenous people, make up about 60 percent of the population, and Islam is the country’s official religion.

Other communities are Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sikh and animist. Christianity is also becoming increasingly popular among Indigenous people as well as among the Chinese.

The country’s political parties and coalitions reflect this diversity.

UMNO has dominated Malaysian politics since independence and had been in power without interruption until it was brought down in 2018.

It has long cast itself as the defender of the Malays and Islam but it is facing increasing competition from Bersatu, a Malay-based party in the PN coalition, and PAS, the Islamic party that is also in PN and has a solid base on the heavily Malay east coast.

Bersatu was established before the last election by politicians, including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who were disgusted by 1MDB and came together under Pakatan to battle corruption and abuse of power in 2018. Two years later, the relationships imploded with some abandoning Pakatan and Mahathir eventually setting up his own Malay nationalist party, Pejuang, which is the dominant party in the smaller Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA) coalition.

Pakatan is more diverse than the other coalitions and is seen as more “progressive” on social and political issues. When it comes to the economy, nearly all parties in Malaysia tend to champion free trade and privatisation, albeit with subsidies and price protections on staple foods and fuel, and special assistance for the Malays.

Pakatan is made up of Keadilan, a multiracial party established by Anwar’s wife to fight for reform and his release after he was tried on corruption and sodomy charges nearly 25 years ago, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a multiracial but mostly Chinese party, and Amanah, an Islamic party established by reform-minded former members of PAS.

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