Malaysians were voting in a general election on Saturday expected to be a close race between coalitions led by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, long-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and former premier Muhyiddin Yassin.
With an unprecedented split of the vote among the three coalitions and numerous smaller groups, no bloc is expected to win the majority in parliament’s lower house needed to form a government.
Here are the candidates vying for the top job:
Incumbent Ismail is the prime ministerial candidate for the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has won all but one election in Malaysia’s history.
He was premier for just 14 months before a power struggle forced him to call for early polls.
Ismail faces the difficult task of convincing Malaysians to vote for Barisan despite corruption charges against some of its leaders.
Former Barisan leader and ex-premier Najib Razak is in jail for the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB graft scandal, which cost the coalition the election in 2018.
Ismail is part of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) political party, which leads Barisan and prioritises the interests of the dominant ethnic-Malay community in multiethnic, Muslim-majority Malaysia.
A survey released on Friday by independent pollster Merdeka Center showed Barisan lagging behind Anwar’s coalition.
Anwar leads the Pakatan Harapan alliance, the multiethnic coalition that ousted Barisan from power in 2018 for the first time since independence in 1957.
His reformist coalition was on course to take 82 seats of the 222 lower house seats, according to the Merdeka survey, ahead of Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional alliance at 43 seats and Ismail’s Barisan at 15, but with 45 too close to call.
Anwar has eyed the premiership for more than two decades since he served in Mahathir Mohamad’s government in the 1990s as deputy prime minister and finance minister. But the two fell out, with Anwar leading massive protests against Mahathir and calling for reforms.
They buried the hatchet in 2018, coming together to defeat Barisan. But their alliance collapsed less than two years later due to infighting over Mahathir’s promise to hand over power to Anwar, returning Barisan to power as part of another coalition.
Anwar spent a decade in jail on a conviction for sodomy and corruption, which he says was politically motivated.
The former prime minister’s Perikatan has emerged as a third force in Malaysia. Muhyiddin is winning crucial support from the majority Malays, taking away some voters from Barisan, analysts say.
His coalition prioritises Malay interests and includes the Islamist party PAS, which has called for sharia Islamic law.
He was a crucial player in the collapse of the Pakatan administration in 2020, leading a group of defectors to form a government at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Muhyiddin, who underwent treatment for pancreatic cancer in 2018, has also served as deputy prime minister.
While Ismail is the official prime ministerial candidate for Barisan, there is intense speculation that Zahid – who leads the coalition – might seek the job if his alliance wins.
Zahid, a former deputy prime minister, has denied the rumours. He is senior to Ismail in the coalition, which is plagued by infighting.
This month Zahid purged the coalition of some long-time members who were aligned with Ismail, dropping them as candidates for the election.
He is on trial for graft, where he has pleaded not guilty.