A man casts his vote during the election at a polling station in Seberang Perai, Penang state [Photo/AP]

People began queueing before polling stations opened, despite storms and drizzle, as three main coalitions vie for power.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Malaysians have started voting in a hotly-contested election dominated by the cost of living and the political infighting that has plagued the country for nearly three years.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob called the election early in a bid to restore “stability” after three prime ministers in almost as many years.

Ismail Sabri’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which is dominated by his UMNO party, is hoping to secure a simple majority of the 222 seats in the lower house of parliament known as the Dewan Rakyat. But it is facing a stiff challenge from Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan, which won the last election in May 2018, and Perikatan Nasional (PN) under Muhyddin Yassin, which emerged out of that government’s collapse.

Voters began arriving before polling stations opened at 8am (00:00 GMT) local time, with queues forming early. Polling continues until 6pm (10:00 GMT) with a result expected in the early hours of the morning.

Queues were seen outside some polling stations in Kuala Lumpur as a dawn thunderstorm gave way to overcast skies and drizzle. Voters also queued early in other parts of the country, despite the rain.

“There seems to be a quiet determination among the people to vote,” Thomas Fann, chairman of BERSIH, a civil society group that campaigns for free and fair elections told Al Jazeera. Fann is in the southern city of Johor Bahru where thunderstorms are forecast in the coming hours.

Turnout stood at 9 percent an hour into voting, according to the Elections Commission.

Going into election day, analysts said the result was too close to call and made more complex by the presence of some six million new voters following the implementation of automatic registration. Some 1.4 million voters are young people aged between 18 and 20 who can vote for the first time.

A man in a blue t-shirt, white skull cap and face mask crosses his arms as he stands at the front of a queue to vote in Malaysia
People started to queue early outside polling stations across Malaysia. The prime minister, who came to power amid political in-fighting, is hoping voters will give his Barisan Nasional coalition a mandate to lead the country for the next five years [Vincent Thian/AP Photo]

Campaigning in the past few days has been intense, with candidates holding informal chats with voters, walkabouts and larger rallies known as ceramah. Malaysians have appeared more ambivalent about the election than they were in 2018 and analysts say as many as a third of people had still to make up their minds in the final week of campaigning.

After voting on Saturday morning Pakatan leader and its candidate for prime minister Anwar Ibrahim told reporters he was “cautiously optimistic” about the coalition’s chances, according to the Malaysian Insight, an online publication.

A pre-election survey by the Merdeka Center, Malaysia’s most prominent survey research firm, suggested Pakatan had the most support but would not win enough seats for a simple majority. An update on Friday forecast that the coalition was on track to win 82 seats with PN on 43 and BN on just 15. However, it stressed 45 seats were simply too close to call. Just over a quarter of seats are also in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak where the voting dynamics and parties competing are different to the peninsula.

The lack of any clear winner is likely to prolong the uncertainty surrounding the election by requiring parties and coalitions to renegotiate alliances, a process that could take some time.

Hope and change

Civil servant Adilla, who preferred only to share her first name, said “stability” was important for her after the recent succession of governments and prime ministers.

Voting in western Kuala Lumpur, the 38-year-old said she had first thought it was important to choose a coalition over the individual candidate, but then decided the calibre of the representative was important as well.

“I want someone who has a voice and can make a change,” she told Al Jazeera.

Yun Koh, a 24-year-old voting for the first time in another part of Kuala Lumpur, said her motivation for voting was “hope”. She was at the polling station with her four siblings and her parents.

“I’m hoping for change,” she said.

Anwar in a blue shirt and songkok, standing among a group of men and women after casting his vote. He looks relaxed
Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said he was ‘cautiously optimistic’ about his coalition’s chances after casting his vote in the northern state of Penang [Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]

Pakatan’s victory in 2018 marked the first time the opposition had won power in Malaysia’s 60 years as an independent nation and reflected public anger at the multibillion-dollar scandal at 1MDB – a state fund supposedly set up to drive development.

Then Prime Minister Najib Razak is now in prison for his role in the scandal, after being convicted in the first of five trials related to the fund.

UMNO’s president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is also on trial for corruption and is widely thought to have pressured Ismail Sabri, who is one of three vice presidents in the party, into holding the election early.

Unusually the vote is also taking place during the rainy season when there is a higher risk of heavy rain and flooding.

If Anwar does manage to pull off a victory for Pakatan and form a government it will mark a remarkable comeback for a man whose sacking as deputy prime minister and finance minister in 1998, and later conviction on charges of sodomy, shocked Malaysians and world leaders including the then vice president of the United States Al Gore.

Anwar’s dramatic downfall ignited calls for reform in Malaysia, and as his political star again began to rise Anwar was charged with sodomy again and jailed. The 75-year-old was eventually pardoned after Pakatan’s 2018 victory, winning back a seat in parliament, which was supposed to put him on track to take over as prime minister from Mahathir Mohamad.

A man pushes a voter in a wheelchair into a polling station in Kuala Lumpur with police officers standing at the entrance and a queue of voters to the left
Kuala Lumpur was deluged in a dawn thunderstorm, but voters came out despite the drizzle and overcast skies [Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera] [Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera]

But that plan also failed when the Pakatan government collapsed in February 2020 amid political manoeuvring and Mahathir’s apparent reluctance to honour the agreement to hand over the leadership.

Malaysia has since had two more prime ministers – PN’s Muhyddin and Ismail Sabri – with the infighting showing little sign of abating.

With additional reporting by Florence Looi in Kuala Lumpur.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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