KUALA LUMPUR - Rallies and door-to-door campaigning are set to resume this weekend for the Johor state polls despite surging Covid-19 cases across Malaysia, in what experts say could be a dry run for the next general election.
Physical campaigning had largely been banned in the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, with parties restricted to canvassing for votes via social media.
Health experts believe that the Election Commission's (EC) decision to allow physical campaigning for the Johor election on March 12 could further inform protocols should a national election take place amid continued Covid-19 transmission.
Epidemiologist Zainal Ariffin told The Straits Times that the polls could serve as a "dry run" for the next general election, which is widely expected to be called as early as the second half of this year.
"I think we are ready (for a national election) and the people are waiting for GE15," he said, referring to Malaysia's 15th general election.
The EC's relaxed campaign protocols in Johor allow rallies with up to 100 people to be held at the premises of political parties, as well as house visits by candidates.
Almost all forms of physical campaigning were banned during the state elections in Melaka and Sarawak in November and December last year, although exceptions were made for rural constituencies in Sarawak with poor Internet coverage.
The last time Malaysia allowed physical campaigning was during the Sabah state election in 2020, which sparked a Covid-19 outbreak that spread nationwide and eventually forced the country into a second lockdown last year.
This time, however, experts say that Malaysia is better placed to deal with any outbreaks from the Johor polls.
Despite Malaysia registering record infections exceeding 27,000 cases daily due to the Omicron wave, the experts said that high vaccination coverage, an aggressive push for booster doses and vaccination of children allow the country to better manage the situation.
Datuk Dr Zainal said: "There will be a significant increase in new cases and clusters, but our health system is ready to face the challenge."
Dr Malina Osman, an epidemiologist at Universiti Putra Malaysia, said that the current situation is different compared with two years ago during the Sabah state election.
"We have vaccines and coverage for boosters is almost at 60 per cent, and increasing. We also have a current vaccination programme for children aged five to 11 years old.
"Also, screening tests now are widely available at cheaper prices. During the Sabah election, there were no vaccines at all and screening tests were very limited," said Dr Malina.
She said that rallies should be considered safe as long as social distancing protocols are followed. She also believes that a general election can be held.
"If we are able to achieve a substantial proportion of booster coverage, and indicators for pandemic management show better data, in my opinion there is no issue in (holding the national election)," she said.
Malaysia's current parliamentary term expires in mid-2023, but an election is widely expected to take place later this year as the government led by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has a thin majority of only four seats.
His government and key opposition bloc Pakatan Harapan agreed in a memorandum of understanding last year that Parliament will not be dissolved before July this year.
Malaysia recorded 27,179 Covid-19 cases on Tuesday (Feb 22), with 43 deaths.
However, healthcare system indicators remain stable, with hospital bed occupancy at 70 per cent and only 36 per cent of ventilators in use.
Only 7,574 patients out of Malaysia's 267,084 active Covid-19 cases are currently in hospital, with 286 in critical care.