Malaysia’s 15th General Election Explained: Floods, Climate Change and Years of Political Instability


Malaysians will go to the polls on Saturday to elect a new government after years of political turmoil.

Three prime ministers have led the Southeast Asian nation since high-profile, record-turnout elections were held four years ago amid a key corruption scandal. This time, the economy – and the rising cost of living – is likely to be the key battleground.

Meanwhile, climate change has become a potential distraction after weeks of torrential rain and flooding have hampered campaigning in about half the country.

More rain is forecast on Election Day and could reduce voter turnout, but officials say the election will go ahead – rain or shine.

Here’s what to expect.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who came to power last year amid public anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic, aims to win a stronger mandate.

His ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) – made up of right-wing political parties including the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – has promised to prioritize political stability.

Election workers make final preparations at a polling station during the 15th Malaysian general election, in Bera, Pahang, Malaysia on November 19, 2022.

Since 2015, Malaysian politics has been overshadowed by the 1MDB corruption scandal, which saw billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money siphoned out of the country. It brought down the former prime minister, Najib Razak, who is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.

“We don’t want to go backwards,” senior UMNO member Isham Jalil told CNN. “We want to immediately focus on political stability and boosting the economy to make up for post-pandemic unemployment.” There is a lot of work to be done.”

But polls show growing support for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance of former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Analysts say the coalition of centre-left and centre-right parties could present a strong showing – even if heavy rain may deter his supporters from voting.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech at an election rally in Kuala Lumpur.

Also seeking re-election is Mahathir Mohamad, the 97-year-old former leader who was recently hospitalized with heart disease.

The centenarian was appointed prime minister by his own party two years ago after becoming the country’s leader for the second time in 2018.

He will defend his stronghold seat in the resort town of Langkawi with his newly formed nationalist coalition, Gerakan Tanah Air, or Homeland Movement. While he is expected to retain his seat thanks to strong local support, experts say he is unlikely to return as prime minister.

A total of almost 1,000 candidates will compete for 222 seats in Alþingi.

Rising cost of living and the integrity of government are the biggest issues for voters in this election, according to YouGov polls.

Although the economy has managed to recover quickly from the pandemic, unemployment is close to 4% and remains a concern, especially among recent graduates.

Income was particularly “phenomenal” among younger voters, YouGov said.

But despite 6 million new young voters among Malaysia’s 21 million eligible voters, experts say this election will be a much lower turnout than 2018 – with the result far from certain.

Political analyst Ei Sun Oh of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs said years of instability have left many Malaysians disillusioned with politics.

“In 2018 at least there was more enthusiasm among voters about the possibility of changing the government and ending corruption – so turnout was at an all-time high,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ll see a repeat this time.”

Thomas Fann, chairman of the Bersih coalition campaigning for clean elections, said matching 2018’s historic voter turnout of 82% would be a challenge.

“This election (campaign) has been unusually low compared to the last general election,” Fannar said. “It could be due to Covid and the availability of other platforms to campaign and monitor online threats, or it could just be voter apathy to the chaotic political situation that led to this election.”

People rescue a motorcycle in a flooded street in Klang, Malaysia on November 10, 2022.

Despite increasingly extreme weather in recent years, the environment was a low priority for voters, according to YouGov.

But extreme weather could still affect the election.

Like most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Malaysia is prone to seasonal flooding.

But last year’s floods were the worst on record – 54 people died and tens of thousands were displaced.

This year the heavy rains have returned. At least 3,000 people were evacuated from floods in seven Malaysian states this week, disaster relief officials said.

And with more bad weather forecast for the weekend, experts say it’s unclear whether voters will turn out in large numbers – especially if heavy downpours and flooding continue.

“If it rains a lot, voter turnout will go down,” said Bersih’s Fannar, who had previously expressed concern about holding elections during the monsoon season.

“We’re already seeing more extreme flooding in states and may have to cancel elections in some areas that could potentially affect voters, especially if the race is tight,” Fannar said.

But some say a resurgence of flooding days before the big vote could wash away voter apathy.

Bridget Welsh, an analyst at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said that while voter turnout was expected to be lower, holding elections during the monsoon season could backfire on the government.

Heavy rains “have helped PH gain more support by drawing negative attention to the ruling BN coalition government and their self-interested, power-hungry call for elections,” she said. “It is (already) decisive in the areas where flooding occurs.”

Malaysia’s 15th general election is already becoming one of the most unpredictable.

Experts agree that there is unlikely to be a clear winner and no single party can claim a parliamentary majority.

“In the end, it’s going to be a hung parliament,” said outgoing congressman Charles Santiago. “There will be no ruling party, no clear winner,” he said, adding that it was “not the best or strategic time” for the government to hold elections.

Oh, a political commentator, agreed that the coalition government would remain in place.

“UMNO has won big in the recent state elections in Johor and Malacca,” he said.

“The party is very good at showing up on election day with its resources and it may be likely that they will win the most seats, but would still probably have to form a coalition government.”

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