KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysians were voting on Saturday in a general election that may fail to end the recent phase of political instability in the Southeast Asian nation as polls have predicted no clear winner.
Longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition is forecast to take the most parliamentary seats but fail to seize the majority needed to form a government as he faces off against blocs led by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and former premier Muhyiddin Yassin.
Without a clear winner, political uncertainty could persist as Malaysia faces slowing economic growth and rising inflation.
It has had three prime ministers in as many years, including Mahathir Mohamed, who ruled Malaysia for more than two decades during two stints in power, and aged 97 has roused himself for one last fight though he is not considered a leading contender.
If Anwar should clinch the top job, it would cap a remarkable journey for a politician who in 25 years has gone from heir apparent to the premiership to a political prisoner convicted of sodomy to the country’s leading opposition figure.
But rival coalitions could cobble together a coalition even if Anwar gets the most votes, and the race is fluid as opinion polls show a significant number of undecided voters.
“Right now, I think things are looking good and we are cautiously confident,” Anwar told reporters after casting his vote in the state of Penang.
Ismail said his coalition was targeting a simple majority, but would be open to working with others if it failed to do so. His incumbent administration includes Muhyiddin’s alliance, though they are contesting the election separately.
Malaysia’s 21.1 million eligible voters, including 6 million new ones, will choose 222 lawmakers for the lower house of parliament.
The top issues are the economic outlook and rising inflation, along with corruption as several leaders from the incumbent Barisan Nasional coalition face graft accusations. Malaysians are also frustrated with the political instability that they think has taken politicians’ focus off economic development.
“I hope there’s a change in the government,” Ismat Abdul Rauf, a 64-year-old retiree, told Reuters. “There are many issues that need to be addressed – the economy, the wealth of the country, the people who did wrongdoing who are not being prosecuted.”
‘FOUGHT ALL THESE YEARS’
Anwar’s bloc is multiethnic, while the other two prioritize the interests of the ethnic-Malay Muslim majority. Muhyiddin’s bloc includes an Islamist party that has touted shariah law.
Opinion polls showed Anwar leading the race. His more than two decades as an opposition figure have included nine years in jail for sodomy and corruption, charges he says were politically motivated.
Independent pollster Merdeka Center forecast on Friday that Anwar’s reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition was on course to take 82 seats, Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional alliance at 43 seats, but 45 too close to call.
Ismail’s Barisan Nasional coalition, which called the early election hoping to win a stronger mandate, will win 15 seats, Merdeka said, though other surveys have predicted it could take up to 51 seats.
Anwar was the top choice for prime minister at 33%, followed by Muhyiddin at 26% and Ismail at 17%.
Barisan, dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), governed for 60 years, from independence until 2018, while Perikatan is a new bloc that has emerged as a strong third force with Malay voters’ backing.
Anwar was released from prison in 2018 after joining with old foe Mahathir, and Muhyiddin to defeat Barisan for the first time in Malaysia’s history amid public anger at the government over the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal.
That coalition collapsed after 22 months in power due to infighting over a promise by Mahathir to hand the premiership to Anwar. Muhyiddin briefly became premier, but his administration collapsed last year, paving the way for Barisan’s return to power with Islm at the he
(Additional reporting by Mei Mei Chu, Ebrahim Harris, Ha Minh Nguyen and Hasnoor Hussain; Writing by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by William Mallard & Simon Cameron-Moore)