Malaysia will head to the polls on November 19, officials said Thursday, after the prime minister called for a snap election to restore political stability.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved parliament earlier this month and called for the vote a year ahead of schedule to shore up his slim majority in the 222-member legislature.
The “election date is November 19,” Election Commission chairman Abdul Ghani Salleh said at a press conference.
Nomination day for candidates will be on November 5, with 97-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad among those expected to join the fray.
Ismail’s UMNO, the dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, will contest the polls head-on with its bitter rival Pakatan Harapan alliance led by veteran opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Others in the fray include a host of Malay-based parties, including Pejuang which is led by Mahathir, who has said he will be available to become prime minister for the third time.
Ismail is the third prime minister Malaysia has had in four years, underscoring the political instability that followed the last general elections in 2018.
UMNO – which ruled the country for over 60 years – had suffered a shock defeat amid allegations of massive corruption linked to state fund 1MDB.
Then-prime minister Najib Razak, embroiled in the scandal involving billions of dollars allegedly pilfered from the sovereign wealth fund, was ousted, charged with corruption and convicted after a lengthy trial.
In August, he started serving a 12-year jail sentence for the initial batch of charges, although he faces dozens more that could keep him in prison longer.
“This is a crucial election because they are electing a government that will bring Malaysia out of the pandemic and back to normality,” said James Chin, a Malaysia expert at the University of Tasmania.
UMNO, which returned to power last year due to political infighting in the previous governments, expects to win big and cement its rule.
But while it has the political machinery, the party remains tainted with the 1MDB corruption scandal.
There are fears that if the party comes to power, Najib could be freed and efforts to pursue corruption charges against other party members will be slackened.
Among those facing charges is UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
“If UMNO wins, there are concerns that the rule of law will not be honored in Najib’s conviction,” Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham Malaysia said.
“Voters will be deciding effectively whether Najib and UMNO party president Zahid will not face punishment for the criminal charges they face.”
The 1MDB scandal triggered investigations in the United States, Switzerland and Singapore, whose financial systems were believed to have been used to launder the money, and battered Malaysia’s global image.
The US Justice Department has said more than $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB between 2009 and 2015 by high-level officials at the fund and their associates and spent on everything from high-end real estate to pricey art.
The economy and the rising cost of living will be key election issues with inflation soaring and the local ringgit currency tumbling.
There are also concerns with the polls being held in the monsoon season, which usually brings widespread floods.