Returning the mandate to the people . . .
On Monday, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced the dissolution of parliament, triggering an election well before the planned 15th general election of September 2023. Members of PM Ismail’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has a razor-thin majority supported by a fragile coalition, have been pushing for an early election to ride the recent wave of success at state-level elections earlier in the year. Per election laws, polling will be held within 60 days of the dissolution. The opposition maintains that holding an election during the monsoon season would risk flood disruptions and potentially reduce voter turnout.
Capitalizing on ongoing political turmoil . . .
UMNO, the leading party in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, has been increasing its political support as the 1MDB corruption scandal fades from the headlines. Since the end of UMNO’s 61-year reign in 2018, the country has experienced tumultuous governance due to coalition infighting resulting in three prime ministers over the last four years. However, since coming back as the leading party in August 2021 and winning its second landslide victory in the March 2022 Johor-state election, top members of UMNO believe that they can benefit from early polling to return as a dominant party against a fragmented opposition. On Monday, PM Ismail also suggested that state governments dissolve local assemblies and hold elections parallel to the general election. Three of 14 states with UMNO-led majorities are likely to open polls simultaneously.
Foreign policy pivot if UMNO wins big?
While the election could provide political stability, opposition members have heavily criticized UMNO, a party plagued by scandals and bribery. Ninety-seven-year-old former PM Mahathir Mohamad, who has announced his parliamentary candidacy, pledged to work alongside like-minded parties to “save the country” from UMNO rule and embrace the rule of law. Pundits have noted that the election could lead to a change in Malaysia’s policy toward Myanmar if the current foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, is replaced. Saifuddin has been a vocal critic of ASEAN’s Myanmar approach, while spearheading talks with Myanmar’s shadow government. However, he is a member of Bersatu, a small coalition party expected to lose seats. And if a post-election UMNO government needs to rely less on coalition partners, it may also shift its policy on Myanmar.