Saturday, 10 December, 2022

Malaysia election: Five key questions

Malaysia will hold a general election on November 19, with former leader Najib Razak's graft-tainted ruling party seeking to solidify its grip on power four years after it was dramatically voted out.

The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) suffered a stunning defeat in the Southeast Asian nation's last general elections in 2018 due to voter anger over a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal at state fund 1MDB.

Najib, who was at the centre of the scandal, is currently serving a 12-year jail term for corruption.

But UMNO clawed back to power last year, taking advantage of political infighting in the two governments that succeeded Najib.

At stake are 222 parliamentary seats. There are 21 million registered voters.

Here are some key questions about the elections, called 10 months earlier than scheduled:

Will Najib walk free?

There are concerns Najib could walk free and all other corruption charges against him could be dropped if UMNO wins.

"If they win and form the government, their first objective is to free Najib," ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad said last month.

"Voters will be deciding effectively whether Najib and UMNO party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi will not face punishment for the criminal charges they face," said Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham Malaysia.

Najib faces dozens more charges that could put him in jail longer.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has urged voters to "to save this country from endless political crisis and corruption."

Does Najib still hold influence?

Despite being behind bars, Najib could still have a hand in influencing the election.

He is a "significant political figure," and able to influence his UMNO diehard supporters and other voters because he has millions of followers on social media, said James Chin, a Malaysia expert at the University of Tasmania.

Najib's Facebook page is active with some 4.6 million followers including many young people.

What are the main issues?

Fighting corruption and rising living costs are among the main issues at the polls.

A cluster of UMNO leaders, including party president Hamidi, are facing graft charges which critics fear could be set aside if the party wins.

Ahead of the polls, opposition leader Anwar denounced UMNO for "endemic corruption and abuse of power".

Malaysians, like many others worldwide, are also feeling the pinch of a sharp rise in living costs, especially food prices.

Last month, the government unveiled a populist budget with huge cash handouts.

"Amid the surging US dollar and a weak ringgit, everyone knows the already painful cost of living will be going up like crazy next year," said Chin, the analyst.

Why early elections?

There has been speculation that Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob came under pressure from a faction within UMNO to call for snap polls a year ahead of schedule to get a strong mandate and prevent graft charges against members from being pursued.

"Let me be as polite as humanly possible -- national wellbeing has never been at the forefront of UMNO's political consideration," said Oh Ei Sun, principal adviser for think-tank Pacific Research Center of Malaysia.

What about the monsoon?

UMNO leaders are confident an early poll will result in a stronger mandate, but critics have said the election could distract the government from dealing with the effects of heavy monsoon rains that occur during this time of year, bringing deadly floods to the country's east coast.

Heavy rain has already started to affect some parts of Malaysia with thousands of people evacuated into temporary shelters the weekend before the election, prompting concerns for turnout and safety.

Last year, the country was battered by its worst floods in history with more than 50 people dead and thousands displaced.