Talk of an early general election is swirling in Malaysia after the government announced that it would announce the national budget three weeks earlier than planned. Law Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said in a statement on Friday that the government budget will be unveiled on October 7 instead of October 28, the Associated Press reported. He added that Parliament’s final sitting of the year will be brought forward for that purpose.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob told local media that there was nothing unusual in the decision to present the budget early and that other administrations have done the same. But the announcement has prompted speculation that Ismail Sabri may be preparing to announce a general election. The country’s next polls aren’t due until September 2023, but the Malaysian leader has come under pressure from his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to dissolve Parliament and call an early election.
The party believes that early elections would give it an advantage, following its convincing victories in the recent state elections in Johor (March 2022), Melaka (November 2021), and Sabah (September 2020) and the current disarray of the opposition. Indeed, reports last week suggested that UMNO powerbrokers have threatened to sack Ismail Sabri as party vice president if he doesn’t announce the elections.
According to Malaysian media reports that cited unnamed party insiders, this was one of four demands that UMNO leaders made in an ultimatum to Ismail Sabri at a meeting of the party’s political bureau last week. The other three centered on the fate of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who last week began a 12-year prison sentence over his involvement in the gargantuan 1MDB corruption scandal. The three demands were that the prime minister removes the attorney-general and chief justice involved with the case against Najib, and obtain a royal pardon for the former leader. Leading UMNO officials have denied that the party made an ultimatum to the prime minister.
A key figure behind the push for an early election is party President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who heads an UMNO faction opposed to Ismail Sabri. At a special UMNO meeting on Saturday, he repeated his calls for an early election and a royal pardon for Najib, saying that the former leader had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
“We must be ready to support a petition campaign to pardon (Najib) when the time comes. We leave it to the wisdom of the king to assess and carry it out in future,” Zahid, who is also facing a raft of corruption charges, told the meeting, according to The Straits Times. Ismail Sabri and other factional rivals of Zahid were absent from the gathering.
Zahid views the current government, which relies on the cooperation with a passel of other parties, as unstable and wants to reestablish the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, the longstanding coalition of which UMNO is the dominant member, to power in its own right, preferably with his own faction in the cockpit of power.
UMNO and the BN coalition were sensationally defeated at the last general election in May 2018, a result that tossed Najib out of office and opened the door to his prosecution over 1MDB. However, the party returned to power in March 2020, after mass defections led to the collapse of the reformist Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.
Political analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi told BenarNews that the early unveiling of the national budget was a “very clear sign” of an early election. “The election will be rushed since I think the Prime Minister has finally agreed that if it is postponed, it will give PH an advantage,” he said.