Amid rifts, experts view election as step that may lead to steadier political scene

With Malaysia heading for an early election, analysts say the country can look forward to greater stability after a rocky period in the domestic political scene.

After weeks of speculation, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced on Monday the dissolution of the parliament, paving the way for early polls. The Election Commission will meet soon to set the date for the general election, which should come within 60 days of the dissolution date.

Analysts expect the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, to remain in power given its continued popularity among the majority ethnic Malay voters. Moreover, the opposition is weak and divided, further strengthening UMNO’s position in the upcoming polls.

“In terms of election timing, (if you are the ruling party) you will call for an election at a time that is favorable to you,” said James Chin, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia. “UMNO is now the strongest party because people are looking for political stability.”

Chin believes the momentum is on UMNO’s side, citing its allies’ victories in state elections in Johor, Melaka and Sarawak over the past year.

“UMNO is likely to win the most seats and be in a position to drive the (formation of the) next ruling coalition,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Oh alluded to the infighting among members of UMNO and how this has plagued Malaysian politics and led to abrupt changes in government. In the past four years, the country has had three prime ministers. The incumbent, Ismail Sabri, was appointed in August last year.

“The mainstream faction in UMNO would like to have an early election such that they could consolidate their power further with a bigger win for UMNO,” Oh said.

‘Key consideration’

Azmi Hassan, a senior research fellow at the Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research, told the media in a phone interview: “As for the factors to be considered by voters, what they want is a strong government which has a solid majority. Political stability is a key consideration for voters who have grown weary over the frequent changes and general political instability.”

He added: “It is also important that any government coming in must be able to deliver on economic rejuvenation as the country has suffered setbacks caused by the pandemic and now the global uncertainty due to the conflict in Ukraine which has in part driven up food prices and inflation.”

The Malaysian political scene has been in turmoil over the past few years, marked by infighting among party members.

After Mahathir Mohamad, who ran under the Pakatan Harapan coalition in the 2018 elections, resigned from his post in 2020, he was succeeded by Muhyiddin Yassin. Muhyiddin is the founder of Parti Pribumi Bersatu and allied with UMNO to form the Perikatan Nasional coalition.

But Muhyiddin could barely hold a majority in the parliament. This fragile position, combined with accusations that he has mismanaged the pandemic, forced Muhyiddin to resign after just 18 months. He was replaced by Ismail Sabri.

“I personally didn’t expect Ismail Sabri to cave in to the pressure within his party to call for an early election,” said Azmil Tayeb, senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Awang Azman Awang Pawi, associate professor in the Academy of Malay Studies at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, said Malaysia’s only “way out of unstable politics is to hand over the mandate to the people to choose”.

Ismail Sabri said in a televised address on Monday that in line with Article 40 (20)(b) and Article 55(2) of the federal Constitution, Malaysian King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has “exercised his prerogative and granted my request for the 14th parliament to be dissolved today”.

He said the parliament “paints a gloomy picture of the country’s political landscape. Never before in history, has there been a change of three prime ministers and governments ruling alternately in the same term”.