Ismail Sabri Yaakob leaves his house to take the oath of office as prime minister on August 21, 2021. Photo: AFP / Malaysian Information Department

MELAKA – An upcoming state election in Malaysia is being viewed as a bellwether of voter sentiment ahead of national elections that could be held as early as 2022.

All of the nation’s leading politicians are campaigning in the coastal state of Melaka, at least as far as Covid-19 restrictions allow, and the outcome of the November 20 contest is so far difficult to predict.

The outcome is especially crucial for the United Malays National Organization-led (UMNO) government, which is seeking the most opportune time to hold the election after its historic defeat in 2018.

UMNO is standing on its own ticket across Melaka, rather than in coalition with other parties, and is thus under a particular microscope.  

How Melaka’s voters perceive the fledgling government of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, appointed in August 2021 after the break-up of its coalition with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and the fall of ex-premier Muhyiddin Yassin, will be key to the timing of the next general election, observers and analysts say.

That poll must be held no later than 2023, but observers speculate that the Melaka result could prompt an early election, possibly as early as spring 2022, if UMNO perceives it could win convincingly.

A snap poll would put UMNO at odds with opposition parties that are known to prefer a later poll, when they hope the feel-good effects of the recent vaccination program will have worn off, and the problems they expect to hit the Malaysian economy start to multiply. 

The Melaka state election will also put disgraced former premier Najib Razak, who is bidding to stay in politics despite his troubles in the courts on corruption charges, back into the limelight.

Ismail appointed him to run UMNO’s campaign in Melaka despite being convicted for his role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, corruption scandal, which could ban him from politics if an ongoing appeal fails in the courts.

Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak waves as he leaves the Duta Court complex after he was found guilty in his corruption trial in Kuala Lumpur on July 28, 2020. Photo: AFP / Mohd Rasfan

Najib’s shrewdly run social media and public relations campaign, presenting himself as the sole politician who understands the economy, has revived his popularity among some voters.

His determination to return to the top job in politics was evident when he answered a question from this reporter in August about his future intentions. 

“Well, a lot of people have asked me that question but my present mindset, I want to focus on clearing my name through the court process. That is my main priority but mind you, recent polls have put me way in front,” he said.

“More than 60,000 respondents [to Najib’s Facebook blog] have indicated that I would be the person they wish to lead the next government but my main focus now is to clear my name through the court process,” Najib added.

Perhaps the Melaka election’s toughest test will be for Anwar Ibrahim, the long-standing opposition leader and chairman of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition whose ambitions to lead the country have been thwarted repeatedly, both by two-time former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and UMNO.  

Anwar has been accused of political opportunism for allowing two former UMNO representatives in the Melaka state assembly who deserted their party to run as PH candidates – so-called party hopping – after having previously criticized the tactic.

The desertion of four UMNO representatives on October 4 after they fell out with the chief minister caused the party to lose its majority in Melaka and the need for a new election.

As far as voters in Melaka are concerned, the poll is largely unwanted. Observers say they are disillusioned with the rapid and unparalleled turnover in Malaysia’s political leaders – the country has had three prime ministers in the last three years – but moreover many are nervous about voting in a process that could turn into a Covid-19 super-spreader event.

“People are upset having an election in the middle of Covid. We had the previous experience in Sabah, where Covid spun out of control. It’s very much not in anyone’s interest to have these elections,” said William Leong, a lawmaker with Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) party.  

Politician Anwar Ibrahim waves as he leaves after a press conference at the People’s Justice Party headquarters in Petaling Jaya, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, on February 26, 2020. Photo: AFP / Mohd Rasfan

Opposition parties look set to take a greater hit from the Covid-fear effect as supporters of minority parties are expected to be more reluctant to leave the house to vote, say analysts and opposition politicians.

Those parties also usually look to aggressive campaigning to raise their profile, but this is now curtailed due to the pandemic.

Anthony Loke, a leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), admitted, “We are facing a very uphill battle, because of the restrictions about campaigning. The government has banned all political activities leading up to the election as a result of Covid.”

Minority group no-shows have led to expectations of a low turn-out of 60% to 70%, as opposed to 80% plus during normal elections times, said an adviser to opposition leader Anwar who requested anonymity.

“I expect the turnout to be less than 70%. A turnout of less than 70% will advantage a Malay party. DAP, PKR, and [PH component party] Amanah are going to have to work hard to get these Chinese and Indian voters to turn out,” said the advisor.

Opposition parties have responded to restraints on campaigning, including their lack of access to party-government controlled television stations, by expanding their use of social media to spread their message.

As key as this is for future campaigning, said Loke, its impact will be limited across Melaka, which has many rural seats where voters still lack internet access.

Wong Chen, a lawmaker with the PKR party and chairman of the select committee for international relations and trade, agreed that the timing of the next general election will be determined by the Melaka vote’s outcome.

“If UMNO wins big, then UMNO will end this government and force a new election. If UMNO loses, they are going to the negotiating table with Bersatu,” Wong said. “Either way, the outcome will have major implications to how the coalitions will form.”

There will be multi-cornered fights for 28 state legislative seats, with 11 constituencies in three-sided contests. Meanwhile, there are nine four-cornered, five five-way and three six-cornered fights in the rest of the Melaka seats.

A November 20 vote in the Malaysian state of Melaka could determine when national elections are held. Photo: Bernama / Facebook

Anwar’s advisor added, “If PH wins with a slim majority, the status quo would prevail and it would be a murky situation, probably no election until late next year and there’ll continue to be a lot of murkiness about the coalitions, who is with who, who is allies with who?”

This election has national importance as UMNO and Bersatu are at loggerheads, said Leong. He expects a three-way split between Bersatu, UMNO and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), a hard-line Islamic party, that will help the opposition to sneak in between the gaps.

PAS has allied itself with Bersatu in the Melaka election, although it was a key member of the coalition led by former premier Muhyiddin.

PAS’ leader Abdul Hadi Awang has spoken optimistically of playing a kingmaker role between UMNO and Bersatu in a future coalition, and is bidding to forge a consensus between the two nationalist Malay-Muslim parties.

“The infighting between Bersatu and PAS and UMNO is a prime factor of the election,” said Leong. “PAS will split the Bersatu and UMNO votes and that will make all the difference.”

Nick Kochan is a financial and political journalist based in London. He has written extensively on financial and white-collar crime. He writes for UK newspapers and international magazines, and has written and co-written books. Kochan is also a lecturer and conference speaker on financial crime and politics.