By EILEEN NG
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysians began casting ballots Saturday in a tightly contested national election that will determine whether the country’s longest-ruling coalition can make a comeback after its electoral defeat four years ago.
Political reformers under opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim are gunning for a second victory — but with three main blocs vying for votes, analysts said the outcome is hard to predict and could lead to new alliances if there is a hung Parliament.
Long lines had already formed in the capital Kuala Lumpur and other cities when polling booths opened as voters rushed to cast ballots ahead of afternoon thunderstorms predicted in parts of the country.
More than 21 million Malaysians are eligible to choose 222 lawmakers in federal Parliament and representatives in three state legislatures. The Election Commission has extended voting time from nine to 10 hours, with results expected to be out late in the day.
“I’m early today just to cast my right as a citizen to select the PM who can bring stability,” said school lecturer Adib Omar as he waited in line to vote. He said Malaysia’s new leader must be able to unite the various races and bring the country forward.
Many polls have put Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, in the lead, though short of winning a majority. But two research houses have predicted a victory for the long-ruling Barisan Nasional, or National Front alliance, led by the United Malays National Organization. The Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, which is a Malay-based bloc led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, is seen as a dark horse.
Malaysia’s gerrymandering and uneven proportion of voters in constituencies may tilt the favor of UMNO, critics warn. UMNO had lost the popular vote in past elections but still won a majority in Parliament due to a skewed electoral system that gives power to rural Malays, its traditional supporters.
The economy and rising costs of living are chief concerns for voters, though many are apathetic due to political turmoil that has led to three prime ministers since 2018 polls.
The addition of some 6 million mostly young voters since 2018 polls are adding to uncertainties in the tight race, and the threat of flash floods due to seasonal monsoon rains may affect voters’ turnout.
“The choice today is between sticking with the status quo … or opting for a different future, with the hope that Harapan will improve lives,” said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian political expert.
Once an omnipotent force credited with developing and modernizing Malaysia, anger over government corruption led to UMNO’s shocking defeat in 2018 polls to Anwar’s bloc that saw the first regime change since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.
The watershed polls had sparked hopes of reforms as once-powerful UMNO leaders were jailed or hauled to court for graft. But political guile and defections led to the government’s collapse after 22 months.
UMNO bounced back as part of a new government, but infighting led to continuous political turmoil.
Initially confident of a strong victory due to a fragmented opposition, UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had pushed incumbent caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob in October to call snap polls. But the UMNO campaign has been relatively muted as infighting and corruption charges against Zahid cast a shadow over its election promise for stability and prosperity.
The opposition has warned that a UMNO victory would result in Zahid, who is fighting dozens of graft charges, taking over as prime minister and escaping the corruption allegations. Zahid has dropped eight party leaders aligned to Ismail from the polls, but he and UMNO leaders insist Ismail remains the party’s candidate.
Anwar, 75, drew large crowds as he crisscrossed the country with his message for change. Thousands of people chanted his battle cry of “We Can” at his final rally Friday as Anwar urged them not to let corrupt leaders dictate the country’s future.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” Anwar told reporters after casting his vote Saturday. “We are here to secure victory.”
The stakes are high for Anwar, who is contesting a new federal seat in Tambun in northern Perak state in a calculated gamble to showcase his alliance’s strength. A failure to win against the incumbent who defected from his alliance could end his political career.
A former deputy prime minister, his sacking and imprisonment in the 1990s led to massive street protests and a reform movement that saw his bloc rise into a major political force.
Anwar was in prison during the 2018 vote for a sodomy charge that critics say was trumped up. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad led the alliance’s campaign and became the world’s oldest leader at 92 after the victory. Anwar was pardoned shortly after and would have succeeded Mahathir had their government not crumbled.
His bloc has promised a reset in government policies to focus on merits and needs, rather than race, and good governance to plug billions of dollars it said was lost to corruption.
Critics say the affirmative action policy that gives majority Malays privileges in business, housing and education has been abused to enrich the elites, alienate minority groups and has sparked a brain drain.
But rural Malays have been constantly warned by UMNO of the risk of Chinese economic domination if the opposition wins. Anwar’s alliance includes a Chinese-majority party that has long been used as a bogeyman by UMNO.
Malays form two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, which include large minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians.
The National Alliance, UMNO’s ally-turned rival, includes an Islamic party that touts Sharia laws and has been accused of hate speech. Its leader Muhyiddin defected from Mahathir’s government in early 2020, causing its collapse. He became prime minister but resigned after 17 months due to infighting.
Mahathir, 97, is also seeking support under a new Malay movement that isn’t expected to make much headway but may split the vote. His popularity has faded and the elections are likely to be the last for Mahathir.
Associated Press video journalist Joeal Calupitan contributed from Permatang Pauh, Malaysia.
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