Malaysia goes early as well

It seems to be the season for early elections. Sweden and Italy both held them last month, as did Vanuatu just last week, while Denmark and Israel are both going early at the beginning of November. Now there’s Malaysia, whose prime minister Ismail Sabri announced the dissolution of parliament last week for an election within sixty days, the exact date to be set by the electoral commission.

The last election, for a five-year term, was in May 2018, so this one will be about six months early. But it comes as no surprise: Ismail, who took office in August last year, has been signalling that he wanted to seek a mandate of his own, given that his majority in the existing parliament is tenuous.

To understand the complex manoeuvring since the 2018 election, you could start with my report from March 2020, and then have a read of Amrita Malhi at Inside Story on the occasion of Ismail coming to power. Basically, what looked like a decisive opposition victory in 2018 proved not to be durable, partly due to inherent stresses in the situation but also due to the scheming of Mahathir Mohamad, who remains active at the extraordinary age of 97.

The end result was the return to power – partially in 2020 and more unequivocally last year – of Ismail’s party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which prior to 2018 had ruled the country since independence in 1957 (much of the time under Mahathir’s leadership). The election will be a straight fight between it and its allies on one hand and the opposition Alliance of Hope, led by Anwar Ibrahim, on the other.

Anwar and Mahathir have had a tempestuous relationship over the years, going from collaboration to persecution and back again. They are now on the same side, although Mahathir’s remaining capacity to make trouble is probably small. More significant for Anwar will be whether he can detach any of UMNO’s allies: principally Bersatu, the breakaway that Mahathir led in 2018 before double-crossing Anwar, and the Islamist party PAS, which has a long history of shifting between UMNO and its opponents.

Unless Anwar and his supporters can pull off something quite unexpected, it looks as if Malaysia’s brief flirtation with competitive politics could be coming to an end.

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