Saturday, November 26, 2022

Malaysian PM calls for early polls as ruling party seeks to rise above graft cases

Malaysian PM calls for early polls as ruling party seeks to rise above graft cases

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on Monday called an early election, aiming to win a stronger mandate and end political instability since the multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal and COVID crisis.

The ruling United Malays National Organisation's rush to hold polls that had been due by September next year comes as some of its leaders face the prospect of long jail terms over graft charges.

Factions pressing Ismail to hold early elections support former premier Najib Razak and party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, both of whom were charged with corruption after UMNO lost power in the 2018 election. They say they are victims of a political vendetta.

Opposition politicians fear the election could become a vehicle for disgraced politicians like Najib - who was jailed in August - to find a way back into positions of influence, and undermine reforms aimed at fighting corruption.

In a televised speech, Ismail - Malaysia's third prime minister since the last election in 2018 - said the country's constitutional monarch, King Al-Sultan Abdullah, had agreed to his request to dissolve parliament on Monday.

The election commission said it will meet soon to discuss a date.

King Al-Sultan Abdullah said he was disappointed with the political developments and urged the commission to hold polls as soon as possible given the onset of monsoon rains in mid-November.

Polls must be held within 60 days of the dissolution of parliament. Voter turnout could be reduced if the chosen date falls during the year-end monsoon season.

A year-end change in government could also hamper the economy, which is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and has begun to feel the pinch of rising costs and a global slowdown.

Ismail, who came to power because a previous government collapsed and whose coalition had a thin majority in parliament, said he was calling the election to end questions over the legitimacy of his government.

"The people's mandate is a powerful antidote for the country to manifest political stability and create a strong, stable and respected government after the general election," Ismail said.

Malaysia has been mired in political uncertainty since the last election in 2018 - a historic vote in which the opposition ousted UMNO, which had governed for more than 60 years since independence, due to widespread corruption allegations largely linked to the looting of state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

But the winning coalition collapsed in two years due to a power struggle, returning UMNO to power in a new alliance along with other partners.

UMNO is trying to win back its dominant position by pressing for early elections, having recently won state level elections.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with Singapore's Institute of International Affairs, said UMNO is the favourite to win as voters can rely on the party's patronage system to help them out during an economic slowdown.

"UMNO would emerge as the party with the largest number of lawmakers, although not necessarily an outright majority," said Oh.

 

CORRUPTION FIGHT

With the dissolution of the parliament, Ismail, who came to power in August 2021, becomes the shortest serving prime minister in Malaysian history.

He was named as UMNO's prime minister candidate in April, though it was unclear if he still had that support.

His government presented the budget for 2023 just last Friday. The new government will have to present the budget to parliament again or propose a new plan after the election.

UMNO president Zahid justified an early election, saying the party "had been maligned by court cases levelled against its top leaders" and that it would be stuck in an endless cycle of selective prosecution if it did not win big in the upcoming election, local media reported.

He is facing 47 graft charges and has pleaded not guilty.

"(Zahid) wants to turn back the clock, to restore UMNO's one-party state and to delete the collective history and societal gains from the 2018 general election," opposition leader Liew Chin Tong said.