KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 19 ― Voting closed in Malaysia on Saturday with jailed ex-leader Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s scandal-hit ruling party seeking to cement its power in a tight race with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition.
The popular opposition leader campaigned on a promise to fight corruption in Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy where people are struggling with soaring food prices.
There were long lines at polling centres across the country despite concerns about monsoon rains, and the voters AFP spoke to said they hoped for political stability and economic improvement.
“I want a strong government and a stable economy so that there will be more job opportunities for the youth,” Nurul Hazwani Firdon, a 20-year-old tutor, said as she went to cast her ballot in the rural town of Bera in Pahang state.
Social media posts showed people lining up in knee-deep waters outside a voting centre in Sarawak state on Borneo island.
One video on Twitter showed an old woman being carried on someone’s back into a flooded polling place.
The Election Commission said turnout for the 21 million registered voters was at 70 per cent as of 4pm (0800GMT), two hours before the polls closed.
Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno) usually dominates Malaysian politics but it suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2018 general election after a massive corruption scandal at state fund 1MDB.
The former prime minister, who was at the centre of the 1MDB storm, is currently serving a 12-year jail term.
Because of infighting in the two successive governments since 2018, Umno crept back into power last year despite lingering corruption allegations, and is seeking a stronger mandate in Saturday’s election — called 10 months ahead of schedule.
The Umno-dominated ruling Barisan Nasional bloc is up against Anwar and his allies.
With age catching up, this may be Anwar’s last chance to fulfil his long-standing dream of leading Malaysia.
“A win today would certainly be gratifying after more than two decades of fighting to win the hearts and minds of the people,” Anwar, 75, told AFP before casting his vote in Penang state.
He added he was “cautiously confident” that his Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) could secure a simple majority in the 222-member parliament.
Caretaker prime minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, from the ruling coalition, cast his vote in Bera.
“I hope the voters will choose a government that can guarantee security and stability,” he told reporters.
A record 945 candidates are contesting for parliament seats across the largely Muslim nation.
Former prime ministers Mahathir Mohamad, 97, and 75-year-old Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin head two other coalitions.
- Corruption a key issue -
Corruption was a key issue during the campaign, with opposition parties repeatedly warning that if Umno wins, Najib could walk free and graft charges against other party leaders could be dropped.
The 1MDB scandal, in which billions of dollars in state funds were diverted to Beverly Hills properties, a superyacht, a Hollywood film and Najib’s own bank account, sparked investigations in Singapore, Switzerland and the United States.
Analysts said there was no clear frontrunner among the four coalitions.
A survey by pollster Merdeka Centre on the eve of the elections showed Anwar’s coalition winning 82 seats of the total number of seats contested, and 33 per cent favouring him as the prime minister.
There were supposed to be 222 seats at stake, but two candidates died and voting in one district was suspended due to bad weather.
Merdeka analyst Ibrahim Suffian told AFP it was “still possible for Anwar to achieve a simple majority” given the large turnouts in the final days of his campaign.
Malaysia lowered its voting age from 21 to 18 last year, a move that added six million voters to the rolls for this election.
Nearly 1.4 million of total registered voters are aged 18-20.
Analysts have said young voters lean towards the more progressive politics of the opposition.
The majority of registered voters, however, live in Malaysia’s rural areas where the patronage politics dominated by Umno still holds sway.
Analysts said the multi-racial country would be in for further political instability if no coalition wins a clear majority. — AFP