Campaigning for Malaysia’s general election started on Saturday in a highly competitive race that will see the world’s longest-serving coalition seek to regain its dominance four years after a shocking electoral loss.
The November 19 election will determine if Barisan Nasional, or National Front, can make a strong comeback or whether political reformers can secure another surprise win that will see their leader, Anwar Ibrahim, achieve a long-held dream of becoming prime minister.
Led by the United Malays National Organisation, the coalition had ruled since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957. But anger over government corruption led to its defeat in 2018 polls to Mr Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope.
The election victory sparked hopes of reforms as once-powerful UMNO leaders were jailed, but it was short-lived after defections caused the new government to crumble in early 2020 and brought UMNO back to power.
Scores of candidates, including Mr Anwar and 97-year-old, two-time former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, submitted their nomination papers on Saturday, paving the way for the start of a 14-day campaigning period.
Local media reported that police fired tear gas to quell an unruly crowd outside a nomination centre in a rural district on Borneo island.
More than 21 million Malaysians are eligible to cast ballots to fill 222 seats in federal Parliament and choose representatives in three state legislatures.
“The general consensus is that the old ruling party Barisan Nasional will do very well and it is very likely that the only other coalition that can challenge BN is Pakatan Harapan,” said James Chin, an Asian expert at Australia’s University of Tasmania.
Caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, from UMNO, registered to defend his seat in central Pahang state as he warned there will be no easy win.
Mr Anwar, escorted by drummers and supporters waving party flags, filed his nomination in Tambun in northern Perak state — a new seat for him where he will face off with the incumbent who had defected from his alliance.
“We are here to offer an alternative because of the failure of the present policies … and the social tension among various communities,” he said, as he began his rounds to meet residents.
Mr Anwar, 75, did not participate in the 2018 vote because he was in prison for a sodomy conviction he said was politically motivated. The campaign was led at the time by Mr Mahathir, who became the world’s oldest leader at 92.
Mr Anwar was pardoned shortly afterward and was to take over the baton from Mr Mahathir. But distrust and infighting led to the government’s collapse, sparking turmoil that has continued.
Malaysia has had three prime ministers since the 2018 polls. Mr Ismail dissolved parliament on October 10, nine months ahead of schedule, at the behest of party leaders despite a risk of floods from monsoon rains. Spurred by several state victories, UMNO believes it has the upper hand over a fragmented opposition and before an economic slowdown expected next year.
Analysts said the emergence of two new Malay-based political alliances in Peninsular Malaysia could split votes among ethnic Malays, who form two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people.
The Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, is led by former UMNO leader Muhyiddin Yassin. His Bersatu party was a part of Mr Anwar’s group in 2018 polls but defected to form a new shaky government with UMNO that was riven with rivalry.
Mr Mahathir, once Asia’s longest-serving leader for 22 years until 2003 and before his brief 2018 stint, also formed an alliance to contest 121 parliamentary seats.
Despite his fading popularity, he is defending his seat in the northern resort island of Langkawi. He said he is young at heart and has unfinished business to oust a corrupt UMNO and revamp the country.
“I am not as old as my age. I have been fortunate to have been able to function just as well as many younger people,” he said.
In two states on Borneo island that jointly account for a quarter of parliamentary seats, a slew of other parties are battling it out. The ruling state governments are traditionally aligned with BN.
“In 2018, it was a long-serving BN government against a long-serving opposition but now, it is not so clear. People have more choices,” Mr Chin said.
Some analysts cited possibilities of a hung parliament with no single coalition able to gain a majority that could see new alliances formed post-election.
Analysts said the addition of six million new voters due to a lower voting age also adds to the uncertainty, while voter turnout could be impacted by bad weather.
Parts of Malaysia have already been affected by floods. Malaysia’s meteorological department warned that severe monsoon rains would start next week that will cause flash floods in low-lying areas.