Malaysia’s power game intensifies as general election nears

Outlook murky as ruling UMNO divided over timing of vote

(Nikkei Asia) –  Political tensions are mounting in Southeast Asia as the region braces for a wave of elections over the next couple of years.

A presidential poll in the Philippines on May 9 marked the beginning of this potentially stormy period, and is soon to be followed by lower house elections in Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia by 2023. Myanmar’s military government is eager to hold a fresh general election in August 2023, while Indonesian voters will choose a new president the following February.

The votes come even as democracy appears to be in retreat in some parts of the region.

In Cambodia, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, secured a resounding victory in local commune elections on June 5. Communes are the country’s lowest administrative division, with the ballot widely seen as a dress rehearsal for parliamentary elections due next year.

The vote showed the CPP bent on holding power through a crackdown on opposition, including alleged voter intimidation. Cambodia’s main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was forcibly dissolved in 2017, enabling the ruling party to win every seat contested in the national poll the following year.

But over in Bangkok’s gubernatorial and metropolitan assembly elections on May 22, candidates supporting the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as an army commander seized power in a 2014 coup, were roundly beaten. That apparently reflected voter anger with the military, which remains in power eight years after the takeover.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, center, celebrates after a general election in May 2018.    © Reuters

In Malaysia, the 2018 general election led to the defeat of the Barisan Nasional coalition at the hands of an opposition alliance led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It was the country’s first transition of power since independence in 1957.

The Barisan Nasional coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has since returned to power and scored a landslide win in two recent state legislative assembly elections — Malacca in November last year and Johor in March.

Malaysia’s prime minister has the authority to dissolve the lower house for a snap poll. Even though the term of the current lower house runs to September next year, calling an early election to take advantage of the momentum generated by the local victories would make good sense in terms of political strategy, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to ease. But Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob remains reluctant to make the move, saying now is not the right time.

The prime minister has said he needs to focus on fighting inflation, but that is clearly a pretext for delaying the vote. Increasing prices, triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, seem certain to get worse, further damaging the ruling camp. So, why is it that Ismail Sabri is unwilling to call an election?

The answer lies in the complex power dynamics within UMNO, which was unseated from government four years ago. The party has crawled back to power without winning a national election, with one of its leaders, Ismail Sabri, now serving as prime minister.

UMNO, which had long ruled the nation uninterrupted, was knocked from power in 2018 by a swelling wave of public anger over corruption and cronyism within the party, symbolized by the multibillion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, which embroiled former Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Mahathir left UMNO and took on Najib, his former protege, by forming Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) as an opposition party. Mahathir managed to forge an opposition coalition powerful enough to unseat the UMNO-led coalition from power and became prime minister again.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during a news conference in the city of Putrajaya in March 2020.    © Reuters

But Mahathir was forced to step down in February 2020 after the ruling coalition collapsed amid infighting. Muhyiddin Yassin, a former deputy prime minister who took the helm of PPBM, aligned himself with UMNO and became prime minister in an internal coup.

However, the Muhyiddin government also came under fire because of its poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its strained relationship with parliament. Muhyiddin’s political fate was sealed when UMNO turned against him. He resigned in August 2021.

King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah then appointed Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri from UMNO as Muhyiddin’s successor. Ismail Sabri had remained in the Muhyiddin cabinet while UMNO pulled its support for the embattled premier. Ismail Sabri went on to form the current cabinet, which retains the previous coalition framework and most of the members of the Muhyiddin government. This way, UMNO has returned to power without winning a public mandate.

Ismail Sabri’s grip on power is not very strong. His government has a thin majority in the national assembly. The ruling and opposition camps have struck a deal to suspend political bickering and not to call an election until the end of July 2022, so the government can focus on handling the pandemic and revitalizing the economy. With less than six weeks until that date, however, political maneuvering is intensifying.

Both the opposition camp and PPBM desire the same thing: They want the election delayed. The opposition suffered a series of devastating defeats in local polls, while PPBM needs time to prepare for the vote after its coalition partner, UMNO, refused to cooperate in campaigning. UMNO, meanwhile, is bitterly divided over the issue.

“There are conflicts between the ruling and opposition camps and between UMNO and PPBM within the ruling coalition. But the deepest rift exists within UMNO,” says Masashi Nakamura, director at the Japan External Trade Organization’s Institute of Developing Economies.

Within UMNO, a mainstream faction led by former Prime Minister Najib and the party president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, is vying for leadership with a non-mainstream group comprising cabinet members.

When the Muhyiddin administration was formed with the backing of UMNO, some members of the non-mainstream group who are not close to Najib or Zahid were appointed to the cabinet to win public trust. One of them was Ismail Sabri, a low-key politician. Although he has become prime minister, Ismail Sabri only holds the No. 3 position in the party as vice president.

Ismail Sabri is eager to delay the dissolution of parliament until he can solidify his power within the party, so he can stay in office after the poll.

Meanwhile, the mainstream faction is pressing for an early poll to take advantage of the momentum generated by local victories. But that is not the only reason. The Malaysian High Court found Najib guilty in his first corruption trial stemming from the 1MBD embezzlement scandal. The court sentenced Najib to 12 years for abuse of power, along with a 210 million ringgit ($47 million) fine. The Supreme Court will start hearing the case in August. Ahmad Zahid, a former deputy prime minister, is also on trial for corruption and money laundering charges.