KUALA LUMPUR – A Malaysian southern state will hold elections Saturday in a test for Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s ethnic Malay party as it faces off against allies in the government for the first time amid a widening rift.
While the outcome of the Malacca state poll will not affect the federal administration, analysts said it could deepen tensions between the two key Malay parties in the national government and shape how alliances are formed in the next general election.
The Malacca election will see a three-way fight between a camp led by Ismail’s United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, another by ally parties Bersatu and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, and the opposition alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim.
UMNO and Bersatu, the two biggest parties in the ruling alliance, are at loggerheads but have agreed to share power until the next national polls, which are not due until 2023 but are widely expected to be called next year.
“The state elections pit allies at the national level against each other. The outcome could put pressure on the national governing alliance and have a spillover effect on other state governments,” said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at Malaysia’s Nottingham University.
The Malacca polls were called after the UMNO-led state government collapsed when four assemblymen pulled their support. A victory would be a boost for UMNO, which had led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 but was ousted in 2018 elections by Anwar's reformist alliance amid a multibillion-dollar financial scandal.
Anwar’s alliance, however, crumbled last year after Muhyiddin Yassin withdrew his Bersatu party and formed a new government with UMNO, PAS and several other parties. But Muhyiddin was forced to resign in August after infighting cost him majority support.
Ismail, who was Muhyiddin’s deputy, then took office, bringing back UMNO’s rule.
Ismail has kept a low-profile in the Malacca polls as he sought to maintain an uneasy truce between the feuding camps in his alliance. UMNO's campaign is led by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who remains influential despite a conviction and 12-year jail sentence last year for corruption. He is appealing his conviction and also faces several other graft trials.
Campaigning in Malacca, which is around a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, has so far been lackluster amid strict rules as the country emerged from a virus lockdown last month after a successful vaccination roll-out.
Blue and red flags, posters and buntings of the contesting parties are the only visible signs of the election, which will see 112 candidates fighting for 28 seats in the state assembly. Political rallies, walkabouts and house visits are banned, taking the campaigning into social media and making results more unpredictable.
Nearly half a million voters will cast ballots from 8 a.m. (0000 GMT) until 5 p.m. (0900 GMT).
Most observers believe the main fight is between UMNO and Anwar's opposition alliance. Bersatu lacks grassroot strength and is likely to take on a “spoiler role" by splitting votes among ethnic Malays and reducing the majority for either side, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
A big win for UMNO could potentially lead to challenges in ruling party states that are helmed by Bersatu, both Welsh and Oh said. It could also accelerate plans to call for early general elections and may prompt PAS and other parties supporting Bersatu to review their alliance, Oh said.
The polls come as Malaysia gradually reopens its borders to vaccinated travelers. The country has vaccinated more than 76% of its population, including most adults. Daily infections have dropped dramatically to around 6,000 from its peak of more than 20,000 in August. The country has recorded 2.56 million cases and nearly 30,000 deaths.