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Why state polls this Saturday are pivotal to Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar’s rule

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (AP) – In the past two weeks, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has zig-zagged across the country on an election campaign that pitched the appeal of political stability and his concept of a progressive government. Just nine months into power, his nascent government will face its first test of popularity in pivotal state elections on Saturday.

The polls are widely viewed as an early referendum both for Anwar’s leadership and also the strength of the Islamist opposition after a divisive general election in November. The outcome of the state polls could influence the direction of national politics – and the country’s stability. Before Anwar, Malaysia had three prime ministers since 2018 after lawmakers switched support for political mileage.

Here’s a look at the significance of the local polls and what it means for Anwar and the country.

WHY ARE THE POLLS HELD NOW?

Six of Malaysia’s 13 states are holding elections now because the local governments refused to call for early polls at the same time as general elections in November. They cited the need to prepare for floods during the year-end annual monsoon season.

Director of Strategy at political risk consultancy KRA Group Amir Fareed Rahim said the polls are basically a “mini general election”.

Nearly 10 million voters, or about half the country’s electorate, will elect 245 assembly members in six states that contribute more than 50 per cent of Malaysia’s gross domestic product: Selangor and Penang, two of the country’s richest states, as well as Negeri Sembilan, are controlled by Anwar’s multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance. Three Malay heartland states – Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu – were ruled by the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

HOW DO STATE POLLS AFFECT NATIONAL POLITICS?

While the local elections have no direct impact on the federal government, the outcome could signal whether Anwar’s multi-coalition government can last a full five-year term.

If the opposition takes control of states led by Anwar’s bloc or otherwise has a strong showing in state polls, it will put pressure on Anwar and could rock the stability of his government, analysts said.

Anwar’s PH alliance won the most seats but failed to win a majority after November’s general election led to an unprecedented hung Parliament. At the behest of the nation’s king, rival parties came together to form Anwar’s unity government. The support of the once-dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and other smaller parties gave Anwar a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the strongest in 15 years. But analysts said this loose alliance is perceived as unstable and needs stronger support from the country’s ethnic Malay majority.

A surprisingly strong surge of Malay votes in November gave the Perikatan Nasional (PN) bloc, led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, 74 out of 222 Parliament seats. The PN bloc includes PAS, which emerged as the largest single party in Parliament.

“It is a litmus test on whether voters – including the crucial Malay-Muslim majority – have warmed or at least accepted the new alignments in Malaysian politics,” said KRA’s Amir.

WHAT ARE THE PARTIES AND MAJOR ISSUES?

Anwar’s leadership faces a challenge in boosting his appeal among the Malay community. By law, all Malays are Muslims and Islam is the official religion in Malaysia. Many Malays view Anwar as too liberal and fear their identity and economic privileges under a decades-old affirmative action programme could be chipped away. Malays make up over two-third of Malaysia’s 33 million people.

The rise of PAS in November reflected a growing conservatism among Malays. Despite a poor economic track record in the three states it rules, PAS retained loyalty through its agenda. Its partnership with Muhyiddin’s more moderate Malay party helped eased fears over its hard-line stance. It has expanded its influence from the country’s rural north, benefiting most from the decline in traditional Malay support for graft-tainted UMNO.

PAS leaders have stepped up racial and religious rhetorics in the run-up to polls. In a Facebook post this week, PAS hardline leader Abdul Hadi Awang implied that the opposition can topple Anwar’s government if they sweep all six states.

But PN’s clean image may have been hurt after several of its leaders were hauled to court for graft. This included PN chief and former prime minister Muhyiddin, who was charged in March with corruption and money-laundering. Muhammad Sanusi Mohamad Nor, a popular PAS leader who was chief minister of Kedah, was also charged recently with sedition for allegedly insulting the country’s sultans in a political speech.

Analysts said it is crucial for Anwar to gain more Malay votes to strengthen his leadership and fight any manoeuver by the opposition to oust him.

WHAT ARE THE STAKES FOR ANWAR?

Anwar has said a win for his unity government will save the country from racial and bigotry. The 76-year-old leader has run a tireless campaign, sometimes speaking at up to three rallies in one night. His speeches dwelled on the need for good governance, racial harmony and political stability. He has repeatedly assured Malays he is safeguarding their rights and called on voters to give his government time to deliver on its promises for reforms.

In July, Anwar unveiled an economic framework to elevate growth, boost incomes and woo foreign investors. He also announced cash handouts and other aids to lower-income groups and civil servants, amid grumblings that his government is not doing enough to stave off the rising cost of living and a slowing economy.

But his anti-corruption platform is seen as compromised after he appointed UMNO Chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is fighting 47 graft charges, as one of his two deputies. Najib Razak, former prime minister and ex-UMNO head, is behind bars after losing his appeal last year on graft charges linked to a multibillion-dollar financial scandal.

Anwar can sail through if he can retain control of the three states under his alliance, said Associate Director at political risk consultancy Bower Group Asia Hafidzi Razali. That would give Anwar time to build his political base before the next general election in 2027.

If Anwar fails, and especially if UMNO performs badly, it could spark a revolt in UMNO and prompt allies in his government to rethink their partnership. A shift in allegiance could plunge the country into new turbulence. “Anything less than status quo will be opening the floodgates of volatility,” Hafidzi said. – Eileen Ng

Motorcyclists pass by campaign flags ahead of the state election in Gombak, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. PHOTO: AP
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