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Four factors shaping Malaysia’s general election

Chong Pooi Koon
Published Mon, Oct 10, 2022 · 09:35 PM

MALAYSIANS will soon head to the polls, as a general election must be held within 60 days of parliament’s dissolution on Monday (Oct 10). The election looks set to be a stormy one – both literally and figuratively.

The hashtag #UndiBanjir, which means “inundated polls”, started trending on social media within hours of the announcement made by outgoing Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. It refers to the controversial election timing that will see a large part of the country affected by heavy rain and flooding during the monsoon season.

The Malaysian Meteorological Department had earlier advised against holding an election during the north-east monsoon season – expected to begin next month – as many locations throughout the country may face flooding.

The election may be tempestuous in other ways, too. Here are four major factors to consider as Malaysians head to the ballot box.

Economic uncertainty

When tabling Budget 2023 last Friday, the government projected that economic growth would slow to between 4 and 5 per cent in 2023, down from 6.5 to 7 per cent this year.

This is attributed to the increasingly uncertain global economic outlook with geopolitical conflicts, global inflationary pressures, tightened monetary policy and weak growth prospects.

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In an August interview, Ismail said that the projected economic uncertainty next year was one of the concerns taken into consideration in deciding whether a general election should be held this year or next, as tougher economic conditions next year may be less conducive for the polls.

The stronger US dollar is also posing challenges to many Malaysian companies that are non-exporters, which face pressures amid rising interest rates and a softer ringgit. The ringgit has depreciated about 11.4 per cent this year against the US dollar, mainly due to the strength of the greenback amid the Federal Reserve’s monetary tightening cycle.

Bank Negara Malaysia has raised its overnight policy rate by a total of 75 basis points so far this year, to 2.5 per cent in September.

Rising cost of living

Reflecting a global trend, Malaysia’s households face a rising cost of living. The country’s inflation rate has risen to 4.7 per cent in August, up from 2.3 per cent at the start of 2022, driven mainly by food prices.

This is partly due to Malaysia’s huge food import bill and a depreciating ringgit. The nation’s food imports have climbed over the years and reached RM63 billion (S$19.5 billion) in 2021, up from RM55.4 billion in 2020.

In tabling Budget 2023, outgoing Finance Minister Zafrul Aziz said Malaysia’s inflation rate would have reached 10 per cent if not for some RM77.7 billion in government subsidies and assistance.

Ismail’s first big test

Often described as the “accidental” prime minister, Ismail came into power without an election after the governments of former prime ministers Mahathir Mohamad and Muhyiddin Yassin collapsed during the most recent parliamentary term.

Ismail faces his first big test going into the polls. His leadership is not guaranteed even if his coalition wins the election, and he has previously raised the possibility of a hung parliament, in which no single bloc has an absolute majority of seats.

The early timing of the election will allow Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to strengthen his control over the party, particularly after he was recently acquitted of 40 corruption charges, wrote Ariel Tan, senior fellow and coordinator of the Malaysia programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, in a commentary last week.

The Attorney-General’s Chambers has appealed against the acquittal, and Zahid has an ongoing court case for 47 graft charges.

“If Zahid runs in the general election, he will be a contender for the prime minister role,” said Tan.

What’s on voters’ minds?

About 21.1 million Malaysians are eligible to vote in the upcoming election, with some 5 million voting for the first time, after the government lowered the minimum voting age to 18, down from 21 previously.

According to a 2022 Merdeka Center poll of Muslim youth, economic issues are high on their list of concerns, with 52 per cent of respondents believing that the country is headed in the wrong direction due to politics and economic worries. Jobs, environmental protection and corruption were their top three concerns; getting quality education, having good infrastructure, and living in a safe neighbourhood were their top priorities.

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