Malaysian election campaign kicks off

Malaysian election campaign kicks off

Potentially fractious coalition government the likely outcome; Mahathir running again at 97

Caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, candidate for Barisan Nasional coalition, walks with his wife Datin Seri Muhaini Zainal Abidin to a nomination centre in Bera, Pahang, Malaysia on Saturday. (Reuters Photo)
Caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, candidate for Barisan Nasional coalition, walks with his wife Datin Seri Muhaini Zainal Abidin to a nomination centre in Bera, Pahang, Malaysia on Saturday. (Reuters Photo)

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian political leaders began campaigning on Saturday for what is set to be a close election race, with incumbent Prime Minister Ismail Sabri facing off against veterans Anwar Ibrahim and Muhyiddin Yassin.

Polls and analysts say no single party or coalition will win a simple majority in the 222-seat parliament, and that opposing alliances will have to come together to form the next government.

The campaign will also feature what could be a last political hurrah for former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, now 97.

A Guinness World Record holder as the “world’s oldest current prime minister” when he became premier for the second time in 2018, Mahathir filed candidacy papers on Saturday to defend his parliamentary seat on the holiday island of Langkawi.

Around 21 million Malaysians are eligible to vote in the Nov 19 election, with inflation and recent political instability on the top of their minds in the backdrop of a slowing economy. Malaysia has had three premiers since the last election in 2018.

Rival coalitions are headed by Ismail, former premier Muhyiddin and long-time opposition leader Anwar. There are several other parties in the running — including one founded by Mahathir — a factor that is expected to split the votes more than ever before.

“This is the first time we are seeing three equally strong coalitions with experienced leaders contesting,” said Adib Zalkapli, a director with the political consultancy Bower Group Asia.

He said there was a high possibility that there won’t be a clear winner in the polls, and that coalitions will have to negotiate to form a government.

Prime Minister Ismail, who is from the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, said there were no easy wins in any parliamentary seats in this election, the state news agency Bernama reported.

He and other leaders filed nomination papers on Saturday, officially kicking off the two-week campaigning period.

The election comes as the economy is expected to slow down in line with global weakening, impeding a recovery from a pandemic-induced slump. Inflation is also rising, with the central bank increasing interest rates this week for the fourth straight time.

Political infighting

In the last election in 2018, the opposition came together to defeat the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and its allies that made up BN, which had governed the country uninterrupted for 60 years since independence from British rule.

The BN alliance, led by Umno chief Najib Razak, was facing widespread anger over the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB scandal and other corruption allegations. Najib began a 12-year jail term this year for graft.

The opposition then included Anwar, Muhyiddin and Mahathir, but their alliance collapsed after just 22 months in power due to infighting. The leaders are not working together in this election.

Graft-tainted Umno came back to power as part of another alliance after the opposition group collapsed.

A poll by the independent pollster Merdeka Center showed on Friday that among the three major coalitions, Anwar’s was the most favoured by voters – at 26%, though nearly 31% of the voters were yet to decide who to vote for. BN came second at 24%.

Anwar urged voters to come out in big numbers, as fears circulated that torrential rain during the monsoon season could dampen turnout.

“I am optimistic we will win,” he told AFP from his constituency in the northern Perak state. (Story continues below)

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 97, speaks to reporters after filing candidacy papers at a nomination centre on Langkawi Island on Saturday. (Photo: AFP)

In Langkawi, Mahathir told reporters that he stood a “good chance” of winning and laughed off suggestions he should retire.

He added his party will not form any alliances with parties that are led by “crooks or jailbirds”, an apparent reference to Umno.

Corruption a key issue

The nonagenarian, who ruled Malaysia with an iron fist from 1981 to 2003, warned that Najib would be freed if the jailed politician’s allies in Umno win, signalling that corruption will be a key issue at the polls.

He also offered to become prime minister a third time.

While Mahathir is expected to win easily in Langkawi, aiming for the premiership a third time would be tough, an analyst said.

“Mahathir’s time has passed,” Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham Malaysia told AFP.

“He was given a second chance and bungled it. His chances this time to run as prime minister are extremely slim.”

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