Voters line up outside a polling station during the general election in Permatang Pauh, Malaysia on November 19, 2022 (AFP/Arif Kartono)
Malaysians went to the polls in droves on Saturday in a ten-month snap election as the government, beset by a massive corruption scandal, hopes to establish its legitimacy and restore political stability in the Southeast Asian country.
Political analysts predict a tight vote, but opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has campaigned on fighting corruption, said he was “cautiously confident” his coalition would win a simple majority in the 222-member Parliament.
“After more than two decades of fighting to win the hearts and minds of the people, today’s victory would certainly be gratifying,” he told AFP ahead of the vote in Penang state.
“Let’s be clear: it would be a victory for the people,” he added.
Despite the risk of monsoon rains, long lines formed outside polling stations on Saturday, indicating strong turnout among the 21 million registered voters.
Offices opened at 00:00 local time.
In Pahang province’s Bera village township (centre), women wearing traditional Malay hijabs went to vote by car or motorbike, while some elderly people went in wheelchairs.
Nurul Hazwani Firdon, a 20-year-old teacher, said that when she goes to vote, she thinks about the economy first.
“I want a strong government and a stable economy so there are more jobs for young people,” he said.
Scrap metal collector Mohamed Ali Moiddeen, 60, just wants an honest government.
“We just want someone who is reliable and can get the job done right,” he said.
– Fragmented view –
For four years, this parliamentary monarchy was rocked by political turmoil and a waltz of governments that saw three Prime Ministers succeed each other in four years.
After more than six decades in power, the historically dominant party, the United Malaya National Organization (Umno), was severely sanctioned in elections and ousted in 2018, marking the first change in the country’s history.
Malaysian opposition leader Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) chairman Anwar Ibrahim raises his ink-stained index finger after voting at a polling station during the general election in Permatang Pauh, Malaysia on November 19, 2022 (AFP/Arif Kartono)
The then prime minister Najib Razak, who participated in the embezzlement of several billion dollars from the 1MDB sovereign fund, is currently serving a twelve-year prison sentence.
Umno only returned in 2021 with a slim majority, taking advantage of the infighting between the two governments that succeeded it.
And Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaacob, hoping to consolidate his power, dissolved parliament and called early elections originally scheduled for September 2023.
Without pressure from a faction of his party hoping to win 222 parliamentary seats in Saturday’s election.
But even as Umno benefits from the well-oiled machinery of a historically dominant party, its image is plagued by a major corruption scandal.
The scandal of the 1MDB fund regarding the large-scale embezzlement of the sovereign fund – which, among other things, should contribute to the development of the country – against the bank account of Najib Razak has led to investigations in the United States and Switzerland. and in Singapore, where financial institutions were allegedly used to launder billions of dollars.
Some observers fear that if the party returns to power, Umno will seek to prevent the release of Najib Razak and corruption charges against several other party members, including party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
“If Umno wins, there is a fear that the law will not be respected in Najib Razak’s ruling,” said Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham Malaysia.
“In practice, the voters will decide whether Najib Razak and the Umno president will be punished for the charges leveled against them,” he said.
If so, Malaysians may choose to cast their votes for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a veteran of the Pakatan Harapan alliance, who may have his last chance to lead the government.
He was arrested twice for sodomy, which is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia, but he has always maintained his innocence, calling his arrest political persecution.
Analysts say the country risks more political instability if no coalition wins an outright majority.
Oh Ei Sun of the Pacific Research Center in Malaysia told AFP that there would be “an equally divided political landscape after the election”.