What’s at stake in Malaysia’s state elections?

What’s at stake in Malaysia’s state elections?

Nearly 10 million people will vote in six states on Saturday, a critical electoral battle for Prime Minister Anwar’s nascent government

By Anadolu staff

ANKARA (AA) – Malaysia is set for regional elections in six of its 13 states on Saturday, a pivotal contest that will give a clearer indication of the political headwinds in the country.

Nearly 10 million people will elect 245 lawmakers in Selangor, Penang, Negeri Sembilan, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah, where the regional assemblies were dissolved in late June.

The results will not directly impact the federal parliament, but are being widely viewed as a referendum on Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s nascent government and his support among the ethnic Malay majority.

Anwar rode a wave of popularity to win the general elections last November without majority support from the Malays, who are a key political force in peninsular Malaysia.

Since Najib Razak was ousted in 2018, all of Malaysia’s last three prime ministers – Mahathir Mohamad, Muhyiddin Yassin and Ismail Sabri Yaakob – have remained in office for less than two years.

- The contest

Anwar’s progressive and multiethnic Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance is pitted against Perikatan Nasional (PN), the predominantly Malay Muslim group led by Muhyiddin.

For PN, the polls present an opportunity to strengthen its grip on Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan, the three states ruled by its member party, the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

More significantly, however, it would be aiming to capture Selangor, the country’s most economically developed state ruled by Anwar’s coalition.

In Selangor, 39 of the 56 electoral areas have a majority of Malay voters, a crucial factor the opposition will try to capitalize on at all costs.

Another group that all parties have tried hard to woo is the youth in the 18-21 age group, more than 1.4 million in number, most of whom became eligible to vote for the first time in last year’s elections.

- The issues

For the federal government, Anwar struck an alliance with a former rival, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has several top leaders facing corruption charges, including Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the party’s president and Malaysia’s current deputy premier.

In a survey conducted after last year’s general elections, local research institute Merdeka Center found that inflation, economic progress, corruption, and political instability were the four major issues for most voters.

In terms of what they want governments to address, voters listed five things: job creation, the wage gap, bringing back foreign investments, enhanced anti-corruption efforts, and education reforms.

- ‘Green wave’ and Malay nationalism

These elections will also test PH’s capability to weather the so-called “green wave” of political Islam and Malay nationalism.

According to Malaysia’s 2020 census, Muslims make up 63.5% of the population. The rest are Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, followers of other religions, or are non-religious.

The term “green wave” has gained currency since the November 2022 general elections, when the PAS won 43 of the 222 seats to become the largest party in parliament.

It enjoys sizable support in the rural east and north of peninsular Malaysia. PAS leaders in Terengganu even defied royal decrees by four of Malaysia’s nine sultans that prohibited the use of mosques for political messages.

The polarization around the three Rs – race, religion and royalty – has been evident during the election campaigns.

In July, Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, head of the PAS government in Kedah, was arrested for allegedly insulting the sultan of Selangor.

He is facing two charges of sedition and will appear in court in October.

In another incident, Lim Guan Eng, the former finance minister who heads the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, raised the specter of a “green wave” that would “destroy non-Muslim places of worship.”

Mahathir, the two-time former prime minister, is also in the thick of the current political action.

The 98-year-old is challenging his protege-turned-nemesis Anwar with his Malay Proclamation, a 12-point document that paints the prime minister’s multiracial administration as a danger to the rights and privileges of Malays.

Mahathir, who is the longest-serving prime minister in Malaysian history after his tenure from 1981 to 2003, remains influential among several segments of the Malay community.

He is known for going after leaders he believes are undermining the rights of Malays. He had blamed the country’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman for allowing the wealth disparity between Malays and ethnic Chinese.

Anwar has so far resisted indulging in the identity politics around race, religion and royalty in his political campaigns, instead touting plans to pull in some high-profile investments to attract voters, especially in Selangor.

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