Malaysians Vote For ‘Hope, Stability’ In Keenly Contested Election

Voters exercising their franchise.

Counting is under way in Malaysia after a hotly contested election dominated by the cost of living and the political infighting that has plagued the Southeast Asian nation for nearly three years.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob called the election early in a bid to restore “stability” after three prime ministers in almost as many years.

Ismail Sabri’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which is dominated by his UMNO party, is hoping to secure a simple majority of the 222 seats in the lower house of parliament known as the Dewan Rakyat. But it is facing a stiff challenge from Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan, which won the last election in May 2018, and Perikatan Nasional (PN) under Muhyiddin Yassin, which emerged out of that government’s collapse.

Polling stations in Peninsular Malaysia closed at 6pm (10:00 GMT), while voting ended in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak half an hour earlier. The results are expected in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Queues were seen outside some polling stations in Kuala Lumpur as a dawn thunderstorm gave way to overcast skies and drizzle. Voters also queued early in other parts of the country, despite the rain.

“There seems to be a quiet determination among the people to vote,” Thomas Fann, chairman of Bersih, a civil society group that campaigns for free and fair elections, told Al Jazeera from the southern city of Johor Bahru.

At 4pm (08:00 GMT), some 14.8 million people had cast their ballots, a turnout of 70 percent, according to the Elections Commission. While that is slightly lower than at the same time in 2018, the electoral roll is 40 percent bigger than it was then, and the number of votes the highest ever recorded in Malaysia.

Going into election day, analysts said the result was too close to call and made more complex by the presence of some six million new voters following the implementation of automatic registration. Some 1.4 million of them are young people aged between 18 and 20.

“To get to that level of turnout is because young people voted,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate with Nottingham University in Malaysia and expert in the country’s politics. “I think what we’re seeing is that young people really took this election in their stride.”

Campaigning in the past few days has been intense, with candidates holding informal chats with voters, walkabouts and larger rallies known as ceramah.

After voting on Saturday morning, Pakatan’s Anwar told reporters he was “cautiously optimistic” about the coalition’s chances, according to the Malaysian Insight, an online publication.

A pre-election survey by the Merdeka Center, Malaysia’s most prominent survey research firm, suggested Pakatan had the most support but would not win enough seats for a simple majority. An update on Friday forecast that the coalition was on track to win 82 seats with PN on 43 and BN on just 15. However, it stressed 45 seats were simply too close to call. Just over a quarter of seats are also in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak where the voting dynamics and parties competing are different to the peninsula.

The lack of any clear winner is likely to prolong the uncertainty surrounding the election by requiring parties and coalitions to renegotiate alliances, a process that could take some time. Welsh said that there were likely to be recounts in some particularly hard-fought seats, and that the Borneo states were likely to be crucial to the formation of a government.

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