Malaysia PM calls snap elections

KAULA LUMPUR (AFP): Malaysia’s prime minister dissolved parliament Monday to clear the way for snap elections in a bid to restore political stability as the country emerges from the ravages of Covid-19 and a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal.

Elections could be held within weeks, mostly likely in November, following Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s announcement, analysts said.

Polls were not due until September next year but Ismail faced intense pressure from within his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party to dissolve parliament and secure a strong mandate in early elections.

“Yesterday I met the king … and I sought his permission to dissolve the parliament. And the king agreed to my request to dissolve parliament today,” Ismail said in a televised address following his audience with Sultan Abdullah.

The palace said the king “expressed displeasure with the current political developments” and had no choice but to agree to the prime minister’s request for early polls for the people “to vote for a stable government”.

The election commission will announce the polling date likely in the next few days.

Parliament’s dissolution came days after the government unveiled a populist budget that included a few billion dollars worth of cash handouts and a cut in personal income taxes.

– Political turmoil –

Malaysia has been in political turmoil since the last national elections in 2018 when a reformist pact steered by ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad overwhelmingly defeated an alliance led by UMNO, the main party that ruled the country for more than 60 years.

Then incumbent Najib Razak, who was embroiled in a scandal where billions of dollars were alleged to have been looted from the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund, was ousted as prime minister.

He was later convicted of corruption following a lengthy trial and started serving a 12-year jail term in August for the initial batch of charges. He faces more charges that could put him in jail longer.

Hopes for stability after Najib’s ouster faded quickly, however, as Mahathir’s government collapsed after 22 months due to infighting.

He was succeeded by his former right-hand man Muhyiddin Yassin, but growing public anger over his handling of the pandemic forced him to resign less than two years after he took office, and Ismail was named Malaysia’s new leader.

Ismail’s rule was relatively peaceful, although there have been questions about its mandate.

Analysts said the elections will hopefully give the next government a stronger hand to shepherd the country over a five-year term.

“The significance of this polls is that this is the first general elections since Covid-19, so it’s very much an election to select a government to steer Malaysia back to political stability,” James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania, told AFP.

“People are just sick and tired of the three governments Malaysia had since 2018. And people realise that for the government or for the country to move forward, you need political stability.”

While UMNO is back in power, it is not the formidable political juggernaut it once was as the party is split into factions among the key post-Najib political players.

And with the opposition also disunited, any winner may have to build coalitions to govern effectively.

“For UMNO, calling for an early election is like killing two related birds with one stone,” said Oh Ei Sun, principal adviser for think-tank Pacific Research Center of Malaysia.

“On the one hand, it is confident of at least winning many more seats, although perhaps not an outright parliamentary majority; but in any case it would have a stronger hand to form a ruling coalition more to its liking,” he told AFP.

On the other hand, early elections will allow the party to cushion growing public anger against rising living costs, Oh said.

“Delaying the election could be deleterious to  UMNO’s electoral chances,” he warned.

Many lawmakers have advised against holding early polls over fears that it will collide with the annual year-end monsoon season, where flooding regularly causes mass evacuations.