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Malaysia in ‘uncharted territory’ as voters head to polls in tight election race

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian voters are casting their ballots on Saturday for the country’s 15th general election, in a closely contested race that sees the Southeast Asian nation heading toward what has been described as uncharted territory.

Three main coalitions are vying to form a government: The opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan led by Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Barisan Nasional led by the long-ruling Malay nationalist UMNO party, and the Perikatan Nasional alliance led by former premier Muhyiddin Yassin.

Around 21 million Malaysians are eligible to vote in this week’s election, including nearly 6 million who will be voting for the first time.

Voting is not compulsory, and turnout has varied in the past. In the last 2018 polls, 82.3 percent out of nearly 15 million voters cast their ballots, making it one of the highest in the country’s history.

This year’s general election appears set to be Malaysia’s tightest since independence in 1957, with opinion polls predicting a hung parliament where no party or coalition is expected to get the simple majority in the 222-seat parliament required to form a government.

“We are in uncharted territory, for the first time we are seeing three equally strong national coalitions contesting,” Adib Zalkapli, a director at consulting firm Bower Group Asia, told Arab News.

Malaysia has had three prime ministers since the previous election in 2018, during which time the country also saw two major opposing coalitions splinter and two administrations collapse.

Economic outlook is a top issue for Malaysian voters this time around, as the country grapples with a rising cost-of-living crisis, a weakening currency, and growing poverty.

Two-time former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is 97, made headlines when he announced his return to the election race, and he now heads a new ethnic Malay alliance and is seeking to gain enough seats to be a powerbroker.

Experts say negotiations are likely to play a major role in forming the next Malaysian government.

“This is the new normal in Malaysian politics, no more dominant party or coalition, the government will have to be formed by consultation,” Zalkapli added.

Following several years of political instability, this election is likely to add concerns in the private sector, Tricia Yeoh, chief executive officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs in Kuala Lumpur, told Arab News.

“I believe that the different coalitions will have to negotiate with each other to be able to form the government,” she said.

With a delay expected for the electoral outcome due to a hung parliament, the situation “may be unnerving for international investors and the business community,” Yeoh said.

“The challenge remains to be that of voter turnout. It is still unpredictable as to how high the voter turnout is going to be,” she added.

Some 6 million who would be voting for the first time after the government lowered the minimum voting age to 18 from 21 are also likely to disrupt expectations for the race.

Malaysia’s political parties have taken to social media to reach the younger generation in their campaigns, increasing their presence across various platforms from TikTok to YouTube, after Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who leads Barisan Nasional, dissolved parliament and announced snap elections a little over a month ago.

“We are seeing politicians using social media a bit more systematically, they have learned to be more practical and articulate their issues better,” Adrian Pereira, a social worker and voter from the state of Selangor, told Arab News.

But the constant political wrangling in Malaysian politics has exhausted voters, with lower-than-average turnout of two local elections held in the past year.

Though Sidney Chan, a young videographer based in Kuala Lumpur, will be among those who vote on Saturday, he was less than interested about the election outcome.

“Personally, I no longer care who wins, if the country needs to go through a complete downfall, then it needs to before it could rebuild itself,” Chan told Arab News.

“It’s all just noise and a waste of screen time as I scroll past my news feed.”

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