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Explainer: Key issues as Malaysians vote in close parliamentary election


The logo of Malaysia’s election commission is pictured at its headquarters in Putrajaya, Malaysia, October 20, 2022. REUTERS/Hasnoor Hussain

Malaysians were voting on Saturday in a closely fought election pitting Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob against longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and former premier Muhyiddin Yassin.

Here are the key issues in the election:

Rising prices and economic prospects are voters’ top considerations as the government and central bank have warned of slowing growth next year.

Prices have been creeping up, especially for food items, even as growth is expected to slow to 4%-5% next year from this year’s forecast 6.5%-7%.

The government has said it will trim subsidies next year due to fiscal pressures, which could result in further price increases if the next administration proceeds with the plan.

“The top issue (in the election) would be socioeconomic wellbeing, which is rapidly deteriorating,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs.

Most of Malaysia’s ethnic-Malay majority would expect the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party to be the “most willing to provide handouts during these harsh times”, he said.

Malaysians have been frustrated with the politicking that has rocked the country since the opposition ended six decades of UMNO rule in 2018. Malaysia’s first opposition victory was led by Mahathir Mohamad, who had previously been an UMNO prime minister.

Since its ouster, UMNO has tried to make its way back to power and has been the main source of turmoil, with infighting both within its ranks and among its alliance partners.

The country has had three prime ministers in the last two years.

Announcing the dissolution of parliament, Prime Minister Ismail said political instability had hurt the economy, saying the mandate must be returned to the people.

Analysts expect disillusionment with the instability to hurt voter turnout due.

Graft was a key reason for UMNO’s defeat in 2018, and some critics say a convincing UMNO win could worsen corruption and see the return of graft-tainted politicians to power.

Several of the party’s top leaders were charged after the election loss. They are the ones who urged Ismail to call for early polls.

Ismail last month announced a wide-ranging misconduct probe against a former attorney-general who had brought graft cases against UMNO officials.

Former premier Najib Razak, along with UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and several other senior party officials, faced dozens of corruption charges. All have denied wrongdoing, with Najib and Ahmad Zahid calling the charges against them politically motivated.

In August, Najib started a 12-year jail term for corruption and money laundering in a case linked to the multibillion-dollar financial scandal 1MDB. He still faces four other trials.

Race and religion remain divisive issues in Malaysia, multiethnic country of 32.7 million people.

Ethnic Malays, who are mainly Muslim, and indigenous groups make up about 70% of the population. The rest are mostly ethnic Chinese and Indians.

Conservative Malays are split between UMNO and another Malay-centric party led by Muhyiddin, analysts say.

Many had felt sidelined by Mahathir’s administration, which saw a higher number of non-Malays appointed to high-ranking cabinet positions.

Malay nationalist UMNO built its support over the years through a strong system of patronage, especially with ethnic Malays.