Malaysia's government said Friday it will present its 2023 national budget on Oct. 7, three weeks ahead of schedule, sparking speculation that it may call an early general election.
Polls aren't due until September next year, but Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has come under pressure from his United Malays National Organization party to dissolve Parliament for an early vote.
Law Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said in a statement that the budget will be unveiled on Oct. 7 instead of Oct. 28. He said Parliament's final sitting of the year will be brought forward for that purpose.
Ismail Sabri told local media that the decision to present the budget early is not unusual and has been made before by other administrations.
“It’s one potent sign of possible early election," said Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “A large swath of the population are still hard up and depend largely on government handouts to tide them over. So generous budgetary pronouncements are typically seen as one way to win over electoral support in the short run."
An election must be called within 60 days after Parliament is dissolved. If it is called this year, it will likely be before late November to avoid the yearend monsoon season.
The government's announcement came ahead of a special UMNO meeting on Saturday called by party President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on its election preparations and other current issues.
Calls for early polls from UMNO intensified after ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak lost his final appeal Tuesday in a graft case linked to the massive looting of the 1MDB state fund and immediately began a 12-year jail term.
Najib remains influential in the party despite his conviction and faces four other trials linked to 1MDB. He and Ahmad Zahid, who is also facing graft charges, have led calls for early polls to capitalize on the return of support among ethnic Malays for the party and an opposition in disarray. Some accused the two of trying to hasten elections to seek a favorable outcome for their trials, which they both denied.
UMNO had ruled Malaysia since the country's independence from Britain in 1957, but was ousted in 2018 general elections amid public anger over the 1MDB scandal. It returned to power after the reformist government that won the 2018 polls collapsed due to defections.
Although the current prime minister is from UMNO, he is dependent on support from allied Malay parties. UMNO, which has said it will not work with its allies in the current coalition government in upcoming polls, is aiming to win big so it will not be beholden to any other parties.