Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s Malay party has defeated its allies in the ruling party and the opposition to score a landslide victory in a second state election that could presage early national polls.
Saturday's big win in southern Johor state by the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, mirrored its victory in another state election in November and will embolden supporters to escalate demands for early general elections, which are not due till July 2023.
The UMNO-led National Front coalition governed Malaysia for 61 years until its shocking ouster in 2018 due to a multibillion-dollar financial scandal. But the reformist alliance that won those polls collapsed in 2020 due to defections and the National Front made a comeback as part of a new government.
The new government, however, is plagued by infighting with the National Front, going up against some of its allies in both state elections. Although the parties have agreed to share power until the next general election, factions in UMNO are anxious to capitalize on its victories and revive its former rule.
“This is a confirmation of recent trends. People voted strongly for the National Front because they want stability" following political turmoil in the past few years, said James Chin, an Asian expert at Australia’s University of Tasmania.
A low voter turnout and a highly divided opposition were in UMNO's favor, he said.
“Ismail Sabri will be under tremendous pressure now to call for general elections. UMNO wants to build on the momentum generated by its state victories. A big win in the general election will also mean that UMNO can rule on its own without a messy coalition,” Chin said.
Ismail was greeted with chants of “dissolve Parliament” when he arrived at a National Front center in Johor late Saturday ahead of the announcement of full official results. The Front secured 40 out of the 56 state seats. Its allies in the ruling coalition only won three seats while the opposition took 13.
Chin said UMNO itself is divided and the premier, who is a second-tier leader in UMNO, is likely to try and delay national polls as he may be replaced if the National Front wins.
Ismail took over the helm just seven months ago after his predecessor, from another party in the ruling coalition, resigned due to defections. UMNO’s president can't take the top job as he is fighting a corruption charge. Ismail's government has a thin majority, and he has inked a pact with the opposition for support in case there are defections.
The state victories also appeared to be a remarkable turnaround for former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was a key figure in the campaigning despite his conviction and 12-year jail sentence for corruption.
Najib is out on bail pending appeal and is also fighting dozens of other graft charges related to an international scandal involving the 1MDB state fund that has sparked public anger and led to his defeat in 2018 polls.
“The people’s voices are loud and clear. This is a people’s referendum ... They want stability. They want prosperity and development," Najib wrote on Facebook.