Malaysian PM calls snap polls 9 months ahead of schedule

Muzliza Mustafa, Iman Muttaqin Yusof and Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian PM calls snap polls 9 months ahead of schedule Customers of a restaurant watch the announcement made by Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolving the parliament and calling for general elections at Kuala Lumpur, Oct. 10, 2022.
Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters

Updated at 12:52 p.m. ET on 2022-10-10

Malaysia’s prime minister dissolved parliament Monday, paving the way for snap polls within 60 days, in the wake of decisive wins by the ruling UMNO party in recent state polls.

The announcement was meant to stop questions about the administration’s legitimacy, Ismail Sabri Yaakob said in a televised address, referring to his government, the third since the 2018 elections.

Ismail Sabri said he received the king’s consent Sunday to dissolve parliament, and the palace, in a statement, said the king had “no choice but to assent” so a stable government could be elected.

“With this announcement, the mandate will be returned to the people. The peoples’ mandate is the potent cure to manifest political stability and shape a strong government that is stable and respected after the 15th general election,” Ismail Sabri said.

“The dissolution will silence the voices that all this while have questioned the legitimacy of this government, this so-called back-door government or hole-in-the-roof government.”

Ismail Sabri’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is the leading party in the ruling coalition, but it had suffered a historic defeat – its first ever – in the last general election in 2018.

However, the coalition that defeated it collapsed due to infighting, and Malaysia has been beset with political instability since.

UMNO returned to the government in March 2021, first by supporting an alliance it later pulled out of, and then by leading its own coalition in August last year with Ismail Sabri as PM. But it was surviving on a razor-thin majority.

The palace statement alluded to these machinations, noting that the king “expresses disappointment at the recent political developments” and “has no choice but to consent to the prime minister's request for the mandate to be returned to the people in order for a stable government to be elected.”

The king also hoped “that the Election Commission will conduct the 15th General Election at the earliest after taking account of the northeast monsoon, which is expected to begin in mid-November,” the statement said.

The country’s monsoon season brings with it often-deadly floods, starting mid-November. Last year, monsoon floods killed more than 50 people and caused 6 billion ringgit (U.S. $1.3 billion) in losses.

Muhd Faisal Abdullah, 19, puts up a Pakatan Harapan flag during the campaign period of Johor state election, at Sungai Terap, Muar, Johor, Malaysia, March 4, 2022. [Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]

Main opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was scathing in his criticism of the timing of the election announcement.

“What kind of a person, what kind of political party, what kind of government – would risk [the] lives of people for an election?” Anwar, who heads the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the Pakatan Harapan coalition, said in a statement.

“Do not be fooled by this selfish government when it says an election must happen now to return the mandate to the people.”

Nevertheless, Pakatan was ready for the election, Anwar said about the coalition that scored a historic win over UMNO in 2018, largely due to the 1MDB financial scandal that implicated the then PM Najib Razak, who is currently serving a 12-year sentence for corruption.

“[T]he people want to express their frustration with a backdoor government and to reject the traitors,” Anwar said.

UMNO ‘think they can win big’

UMNO, however, really fancies its chance in the upcoming election, said Salawati Mat Basir, a professor at the University Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Talk has been rife of an imminent election after UMNO won solo landslide victories in state polls in Melaka and Johor, last November and in March, respectively.

UMNO’s top leadership, especially its President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and his supporters, wanted early general elections, analysts said, to capitalize on these state wins. Critics also alleged that Zahid wanted UMNO back in power swiftly so the government could influence a case in which he is stranding trial for corruption.

“Yes, that is why they are so confident,” Salawati told BenarNews, affirming that the state poll victories made UMNO believe they had more than a fighting chance, despite the corruption scandals.

Political analyst Md. Azizuddin Md. Sani concurred.

“They think they can win big if the election is in November. In my opinion, UMNO will move solo for the upcoming election. They are going to apply the same [running solo] tactic as before just like [they did in] Melaka and Johor,” he told BenarNews.

“One more thing, next year it is going to be worse for the global economy, which will impact us. Instead of an election next year, it is good to have it this year, form a stable government and focus on the economy next year.”

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks to journalists outside the Federal Court during a court break, in Putrajaya, Malaysia Aug. 23, 2022. [Lai Seng Sin/Reuters]

But UMNO would have to overcome the taint of corruption, refreshed for Malaysians when the Federal Court in August upheld the guilty verdict against senior UMNO leader and former PM Najib for corruption in a 1MDB-related case.

Najib was packed off to prison to serve his 12-year sentence and has since applied for a royal pardon, a decision on which is awaited. UMNO has continued to back him, saying he didn’t get a fair hearing at his appeal before the Federal Court. The former PM is also standing trial in a 1MDB case in which he faces 25 charges of abuse of power and money laundering.

Meanwhile, UMNO President Zahid is battling his own graft charges, although he got a reprieve when he was acquitted last month in one of two cases.

Zahid is currently standing trial in a second case in which he faces 47 criminal charges related to the alleged misappropriation of 52.25 million ringgit (U.S. $11.42 million) from his family-owned foundation set up to help the economically disadvantaged. Some local media reports say a verdict in this case is expected early next year.

Analyst James Chin of the University of Tasmania believes that UMNO’s desire to hold elections as quickly as possible stems from these graft cases.

“They want to get back into power so they can do something about court cases,” Chin told BenarNews.

“That's very obvious.”


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