KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s 15th general election kicked off on Saturday, with 945 candidates vying for Parliament’s 222 seats and a say in who will form the fifth government in as many years.
The record number of contenders in multi-cornered battles across the country reflect the fragmented political landscape, which has resulted in heightening instability and power changing hands thrice since the landmark 2018 polls.
Although Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) was defeated for the first time in Malaysia’s six-decade history, it took just three years for it to wrest back the premiership after a series of defections and withdrawals of support that have plagued Malaysian politics since 2018.
Caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob hopes to retain his grip on the highest office after the Nov 19 vote, but sliding approval ratings show that despite BN’s sterling performances in state elections this past year, it is by no means a shoo-in at the national level.
Furthermore, many remain unconvinced that Datuk Seri Ismail will continue as premier in the event of a BN victory, as opposed to Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, whose image has been tarnished by dozens of graft charges.
“I am still the poster boy and prime minister candidate for BN,” said Umno vice-president Ismail on Saturday, citing resolutions from 156 out of 191 divisions backing him.
Corruption is expected to be a key narrative in the campaigns of BN’s opponents as several of the ruling coalition’s leaders have faced graft charges in recent years, most notably former premier Najib Razak, who is serving a 12-year jail sentence due to the 1MDB scandal.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who heads the Gerakan Tanah Air coalition, said: “We intend to work with other parties but they must be clean parties, not led by crooks and jailbirds.”
The coalition is expected to face a tough fight despite being helmed by the 97-year-old, Malaysia’s longest-serving former premier.
Analysts predict a three-way split for most of the seats between the main coalitions – BN, Pakatan Harapan (PH) led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and Perikatan Nasional (PN) headed by former premier Muhyiddin Yassin. However, several smaller alliances and parties are expected to take enough wins to potentially be kingmakers once the dust settles in a fortnight.
The tense battle where every seat counts was underlined when police fired tear gas to break up a riot at the nomination centre for the Tenom seat in Sabah, after Parti Kesejahteraan Demokratik Masyarakat president Peter Anthony’s candidacy was rejected due to a court conviction.
Supporters in Tenom were among tens of thousands nationwide who had gathered from as early as 7am to march with their preferred candidates while hoisting flags and banners to their respective nomination centres.
Complicating matters further for the main hopefuls to lead the next government is the presence of disgruntled leaders who are either running or campaigning against their own parties, having been dropped as candidates.
Former Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) vice-president Chua Tian Chang, better known as Tian Chua, is among 10 candidates in the Kuala Lumpur ward of Batu, where he has served two terms. He is running as an independent after being dropped from the party line-up by Datuk Seri Anwar.
PN is also facing two incumbents in Kuala Nerus and Tumpat who were formerly with its coalition partner Parti Islam SeMalaysia.
Three Umno renegades – an outgoing minister and two deputy ministers – are defending their seats against candidates who have replaced them on the Umno slate.
Two of these Umno rebels are standing in Perlis, including the state’s former chief minister Shahidan Kassim. The influential warlord’s contest on the PN ticket has raised the prospect of Umno ceding the northern state for the first time.
Perlis, Perak and Pahang are the only three states out of the nation’s 13 that are holding concurrent polls with the federal legislature. All three were controlled by Umno, with Perak set to be a key bellwether contest as a significant shift there could also spell out who triumphs nationally.
Former deputy premier Anwar is hoping to bolster hopes of taking Perak, as well as ending a 25-year wait to ascend to the highest office by taking on caretaker youth and sports minister Faizal Azumu in Tambun in a four-cornered fight.
Zahid is being challenged in Bagan Datuk on the state’s south-western coast by PKR’s ex-deputy minister Shamsul Iskandar Akin, who has a reputation for being a giant-killer in previous polls, in another four-way battle.