Malay’s party of Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yakob won a landslide victory in state elections on Saturday, beating its ruling coalition allies as well as opposition ahead of nationwide polls.
The victory in the southern state of Malacca by the United Malay National Organization of Ismail (UMNO) was seen as a leader capable of forging alliances in national elections after a period of political turmoil. Elections are not scheduled until 2023, but many expect them to be called next year.
UMNO has led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, but was ousted in the 2018 elections by opposition leader Ibrahim Anwar’s reform alliance following a multibillion dollar financial scandal that led to corruption charges against former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Anwar’s alliance fell apart last year after Muhiddin Yassin withdrew his party to Bersatu and formed a new government with UMNO, the Panmalaysian Islamic Party and several others. Muhiddin was forced to resign in August due to feuds, and Ismail, who was Muhiddin’s deputy, took office, returning the UMNO board.
UMNO and Bersatu, the two largest parties in the ruling alliance, are in conflict, but have agreed to share power before the next general election. Both parties are fighting to support ethnic Malays, who make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 31 million people.
The election commission said the UMNO-led National Front coalition won 21 of 28 seats in the state legislature, while Anwar’s opposition won five and Bersat’s two.
“Voters have returned to the UMNO / National Front as this coalition is associated with greater financial security in times of instability.” coronavirus a pandemic, said Bridget Welch, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia.
She said it was also a big defeat for the opposition and showed that voters rejected Anwar’s leadership.
UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also on trial for corruption, said the people of Malacca sent a clear message that they want “stability and prosperity.” Opposition politicians blamed the defeat on a low voter turnout of 66 percent.
Analysts say a major UMNO victory could potentially lead to problems in states with a ruling party led by Bersatu, accelerate plans for early general elections, and could prompt the PAS Islamic Party and other Bersatu supporters to reconsider their alliance.
The campaign in Malacca, which is about two hours from Kuala Lumpur, has been muted due to strict regulations as the country emerged from a viral lock last month following a successful vaccination rollout. Political rallies and home visits were banned, and campaigning was moved to social media.
The polls were conducted as Malaysia gradually opens its borders to vaccinated travelers. More than 76 percent of the population is vaccinated in the country, including most adults.
Daily contamination has plummeted to 6,000 from a peak of over 20,000 in August. The country has recorded 2.57 million cases and nearly 30,000 deaths.