MALAYSIANS will head to the polls once again today as the stage is set for the most anticipated election (GE14) the country has seen in its 60 years of independence.
Starting 8 am, a total of 14,968,304 registered voters will decide the fate of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is seeking a third term in office, and is facing the biggest challenge of his political career.
Pundits and pollsters – both foreign and local – have placed little doubt of an easy win for Najib’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, led by lynchpin party Umno, or the United Malays National Organisation, which has never relinquished federal power to the opposition. But the results of the past two elections might prove to be major turning points for the country.
During the 12th election in 2008, BN, which was then led by Najib’s predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, lost the ruling coalition’s customary two-thirds majority in parliament, along with five states to the opposition. The 13th election (GE13) in 2013 saw Najib’s administration lose the traditional popular vote.
The road leading up to this election was filled with high drama; it’s been dubbed the “Mother of all elections”, with the opposition stalwart Dr Mahathir Mohamad warning of the “Dirtiest vote in history”.
For starters, the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) opposition pact chaired by Dr. Mahathir and other critics have accused Najib’s administration of using scare tactics and fraudulent practices to win the polls, including gerrymandering and malapportionment of voting blocs.
There was also the recent introduction of a law to counter fake news, the suspension of Dr. Mahathir’s Bersatu party, and the Election Commission’s (EC) new rules to limit the number of faces on campaign banners.
To top that, overseas voters complained of not receiving their ballot papers in time to deliver before the 5 pm deadline on May 9, when the polling stations close.
The EC’s decision to hold polling day mid-week in a Wednesday (as opposed to a weekend day), and the short 11-day campaign period (instead of the traditional 13 to 21 days), also added to discontentment on social media.
What’s at stake?
Up for grabs are 222 parliamentary seats and 505 state seats, excluding the seats for the legislative assembly for the state of Sarawak in Borneo, which term ends in 2021.
In GE13, BN won 133 parliamentary seats but regained two states. Nevertheless, the number of parliamentary seats secured by team Najib was lower than the 140 won in 2008.
More than half of the total of voters, or 7.5 million registered voters (50.6 percent) are women, while men make up 7.3 million (49.9 per cent). From the total 14.9 million voters, 6.2 million fall within 21 to 39 age group.
The EC is spending a total of RM402 million (US$100 mil) to hold the election, utilising 8,971 polling centres comprising 29,097 voting streams. The EC is also deploying 116,388 polling and counting agents, across the country’s 13 states, according to a local newspaper.
To win this election, BN must gain a simple majority, meaning at least half of the 222 seats contested, plus one. For a supermajority, the coalition needs to gain two-thirds of the total seats, or at least 148 constituencies, which allows amendments to the country’s absolute law, the Federal Constitution, with little or no hindrance.
As anticipated, Najib has been confident of a bigger victory than the previous election despite fending off massive corruption allegations involving the country’s 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) slush fund.
Over the past decade, the ruling coalition has also been struggling to regain support from Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities, who represent around 22.6 and 6.7 percent of the population.
The two ethnic communities have often complained of being marginalised due to their exclusion from the affirmative action policies that accords education, housing, and business privileges to the Malay majority.
Another scandal involving state plantation company Felda, compounds Najib’s problems as it directly affects millions of small plantation owners and their families who make up for a large portion of the Malay vote bank.
Najib’s former mentor, Dr Mahathir, had entered fractured opposition bloc and agreed and head the government again if it wins. The influential nonagenarian, who is known as the country’s “father of development”, stands in the way of Najib’s re-election.
Dr Mahathir, who earned a reputation during his 22-year tenure as prime minister as a no-nonsense authoritarian with little time for dissenters promoting liberal values, stands to become the world’s oldest leader if the opposition wins.
A victory could also potentially pave the way for Dr Mahathir’s former foe-turned-comrade Anwar to become the prime minister.
However, a third force in the country’s political landscape, the ultra-orthodox Pan Islamic Party (Pas), threatens to ruin the opposition’s hopes of wresting Putrajaya, the federal administrative capital, as its candidates will likely split votes of the Malay-Muslim majority in key states and constituencies.
What makes this election different from those past is that this is the first time a former prime minister is attempting to unseat an incumbent successor. Also, Najib and his ilk will be squaring off against several former top Umno politicians, including his ex-deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, and two party vice-presidents, who were dismissed for questioning the 1MDB scandal.
In recent weeks, several former cabinet ministers of Dr Mahathir’s administration have also come to the fore to criticise Najib’s leadership and throw their weight behind the opposition.
As one Asian Correspondent reporter puts it: “It is akin to Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet rising from the dead to join the Labour Party and leading them to their first victory.”