Malaysians vote in hotly contested elections

KUALA LUMPUR — The corrupt party of imprisoned ex-leader Najib Razak seeks to cement its grip on power as the country heads to the polls on Saturday, but analysts say the race is too close to announce.

Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) typically dominates politics in the Southeast Asian country, but suffered a major defeat in the 2018 general election after a huge corruption scandal at state fund 1MDB.

The two governments that succeeded UMNO, however, were plagued by infighting, allowing the party to return to power last year. Now, UMNO will seek a stronger mandate in an election called ten months earlier than expected.

Among the challengers is perennial opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, 75, who leads the ethnically diverse Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition. He campaigns on an anti-corruption platform.

With the catching up, this election could be Anwar’s last chance to fulfill a 20-year dream of leading Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy.

He faces the ruling Barisan National coalition, dominated by UMNO and led by Najib loyalist and former interior minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. It also includes interim Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

UMNO remains hampered by allegations of corruption. Najib, who was at the center of the 1MDB scandal, is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence.

Opposition parties say they are worried that the ex-prime minister may walk free and that corruption charges against Zahid and other party leaders will be dropped if UMNO wins.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 97, and another ex-leader Muhyiddin Yassin, 75, lead two other coalitions vying for elections.

– ‘Fragmented political landscape’ –

Analysts said there was no clear favorite among the four coalitions seeking the 222 parliamentary seats at stake.

Malaysians will choose from a record 945 candidates across the predominantly Muslim nation, which also includes the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

“Voters can expect a plethora of candidates on their ballots, so they will have a hard time deciding between candidates holding similar positions,” said Oh Ei Sun of Malaysia’s Pacific Research Center.

The number of eligible voters has risen from 18 million four years ago to more than 21 million, after the voting age was lowered in 2021.

About 1.4 million of the new additions are first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 20.

The majority of voters live in rural areas, where the politics of patronage continues to prevail.

Analysts have said the multiracial country will experience further political instability if no coalition wins a clear majority.

“Unless Pakatan Harapan can clinch an absolute parliamentary majority … the dominant UMNO party or one of the Malaysian Muslim parties could form a coalition government,” Oh told AFP.

“Voters will likely expect a similarly fragmented political landscape after the election, with plenty of haggling over forming the next ruling coalition.”

The election comes as Malaysians grapple with soaring food prices and parts of the country continue to be hit by flash floods from monsoon rains.

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