KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 27 — At the 2018 national polls, the 1MDB scandal and soaring cost of living blamed on a new consumption tax fuelled a watershed vote swing that ended six decades of Barisan Nasional (BN) rule and put a hastily patched Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition into power.
Come November 19, Malaysians will vote again but much has changed since. The term leading up to the 15th general election is one beset by continuous tumult and crises.
In just four years, Malaysia has had three different administrations and prime ministers. No political coalition can now claim to have dominance, while alliances that shaped the battle lines of 2018 are far more murkier today, and much messier.
Just before Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob of BN dissolved Parliament on October 10, he led a government made of rival parties whose leaders constantly jibed at one another. Meanwhile the Opposition appeared to be just as fragmented. The emergence of new parties have seemingly made finding a common ground harder.
So what do the political battle lines look like today? Malay Mail explains.
Who are GE15’s main contenders?
In the peninsula, the polls will be a battle between three big political coalitions. BN, the incumbent, now consists only of Umno, MCA, MIC and the Sabah-based PBRS. Unlike 2018, it would now face two rival blocs instead of one, the main Opposition group PH, and former co-rulers from Perikatan Nasional (PN).
The latter consists of Bersatu, an Umno splinter that once sat in PH, PAS, the Sabah-based SAPP, STAR and Gerakan. With PAS in the band, pundits have been quick to suggest PN could chip away at BN's power base — the conservative urban and rural Malay voters – but so far that hasn't happened, judging by the Melaka and Johor state elections where BN stood against PN and PH, and came out triumphant.
Across the South China Sea, the battles will feature distinctly local dynamics. Sarawakian parties that were once component members of BN have now forged their own coalition called the Sarawak Parties’ Alliance (GPS), which enjoys immense clout there thanks to the growing nativist and anti-peninsular sentiment peddled by its leaders.
So far GPS, led by Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, which has ruled Sarawak since the formation of Malaysia, remains "BN-friendly". But there are talks that it could easily switch sides if BN is defeated, just like how it sided PN before an Umno coup in 2021 relegated the coalition in the backseat of the Ismail-led government.
But just across the state border BN and PN are still chummy. PN in Sabah is now part of a broader coalition called the Sabah Peoples' Coalition (GRS), with its other sole member being the small United Sabah National Organisation (Usno). GRS is currently the incumbent government there, with its state Cabinet consisting also of Umno leaders.
Just earlier this month the two sides said they would remain as allies. It's an alignment that is likely kept in the face of a growingly strong opponent in Warisan, led by Datuk Seri Shafie Afdal. It is unclear if Warisan would stand alone or team up with the PKR-DAP-Amanah-Upko band but there are talks that both sides are keen to avoid multi cornered contests, which they believe is crucial to beat the BN-GRS bloc.
Back in the peninsula, the Opposition remains fragmented now that newer and smaller parties have joined in the fray. They include Parti Pejuang Tanah Air, the party founded by two-time former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The party currently has four incumbent MPs including the 97 year-old Dr Mahathir, who confirmed recently that he would defend his Langkawi seat.
Pejuang, once a PH ally, is now leading a Malay-only coalition dubbed the Gagasan Tanah Air (GTA) although its members are much smaller parties with questionable standing. Pejuang said it hopes to contest up to 40 federal seats. There are rumours that PH may be open to some form of electoral pact with GTA and even Bersatu, maybe to avoid multi cornered fights, but its president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim had made it clear that such pact isn't likely to be formally cemented
What about Muda and the Undi18 votes?
Pollster Ilham Centre recently estimated there could be up to seven million first time voters at the 15th general election, with over a tenth of them aged between 18 to 20. Combined with those between 21 to 39, young voters would form nearly half of the 21 million-strong electoral roll.
Pundits have no way of predicting how these new voters think, and many are sceptical about their political literacy. Still, by sheer size alone these young voters could sway not just the outcome of November's polls, but of upcoming future elections as well.
There is a widely held view that younger voters are typically anti-establishment but that has been fiercely contested after the Melaka and Johor state polls, where BN sailed through with convincing majorities despite the increased presence of younger voters.
Still, beneath all the noise from BN's celebration voting data pointed to growing curiosity among younger voters towards the party founded by Malaysia's once youngest minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, the all-youth based Malaysian United Democratic Alliance.
Political analyst Bridget Welsh, citing data from the Johor 2022 state election found voting behaviour shows Muda outperformed PKR in garnering political support in the southern state. Contrary to most positions taken so far, she concluded that Muda actually brings value to the table as far as strengthening PH is concerned.
"Among the coalition partners, PKR has performed the worst, losing the deposit of one seat in Malacca, 22 of 28 contests in Sarawak, and seven of 20 contests in Johor," Welsh said.
"By contrast, Muda did not lose deposits in any of the seven seats it contested in Johor, despite having no record in contesting in any of these seats beforehand.
"A reason for this lies with Muda’s better ability to bring supporters to the polls. Looking at past voting patterns of 2013 and 2018 at the local level in Johor 2022, Muda was able to bring out an estimated 43 per cent of previous PH supporters while PKR was only able to bring out an estimated 35 percent," she added.
This explains why PH, initially hostile, is now receptive to the nascent party and talks about working together for the elections appeared to have progressed positively.
What are the key election issues?
PH is likely to continue riding on the anti-corruption platform that helped put the coalition into office, only this time it seems the focus has shifted towards specific individuals from Umno.
Judging from the public statements its leaders have made on social media, PH is set to harp on Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi's ongoing graft trial, and that he has been pushing for an early election believing that a BN win could alter the outcome, or even free jailed former prime minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak who has been convicted of one corruption case, ie, the RM42 million belonging to SRC International Sdn Bhd.
Zahid has so far ignored the allegation that he saw a dominant BN government post GE15 as a way to acquit himself. He has been acquitted from charges that he took bribes as then home minister from a company that was given the foreign visa application processing contract for the Home Ministry, but is still on trial for charges that he embezzled millions through a charity foundation he found.
Inflation will also be a crucial issue now that Malaysian voters are saddled with higher mortgages and soaring living costs. The third quarter consumer price index reached unprecedented highs, the main driver being food and energy prices. PH leaders have tried to pin the blame on the past two BN and PN unity governments, accusing them of incompetent management and lacking the political will to carry out painful reforms that would pluck leakages that have benefitted crony rent-seekers.
But BN on the other hand has had success pitching “stability” to voters. This, coupled with political fatigue, are said to be the main factors that handed the coalition onvincing wins in the recent Melaka and Johor state elections. It could continue to do the same, depicting PH as an unstable coalition whose short two-year rule was marred with infighting, allegedly over key government positions.
BN leaders have also made it known that it would use Budget 2023 as a key election platform. At RM372 billion, it's the highest to date with allocation for development taking up RM95 billion from the total.
“I think the GE would still be fought over prevailing narratives – which coalition is purportedly better over the other.
“BN will likely use Budget 2023 to align it with its election manifesto of stability and policy continuity and economic growth to showcase the need for them to govern with a stronger majority,” said Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, associate director at risk consultancy Vriens and Partners.
PN, on the other hand, will assert its role in all three administrations for the past three years, and the crucial role its ministers played in mitigating Covid-19, the analyst predicted.
Still, the primary narratives for issues will likely be framed around bread and butter issues but with no coalition or party being able to come up with concrete policy issues. Shazwan believes GE15 will still be reactive and personality-driven.