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Elections and old ties grip SE Asia

The Southeast Asian region is entering election mode — starting with the upcoming snap election in Malaysia next month, followed by the national election next year in Thailand, which is tentatively set for May, and Cambodia's poll in July.

Now, the spotlight is on Kuala Lumpur. In just over three weeks, Malaysians will head to polls in the hope of ending the political deadlock that has seen three prime ministers come and go in the span of three years.

Many are hoping the snap election called by then-prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakub will help end the uncertainty which has loomed large in Putrajaya over the past 22 months.

The big question is whether Malaysia’s 15th general election (GE15) will bring about the change Malaysians so desperately crave. Judging from the list of potential candidates, the chances of meaningful change seem to be slim as the list is dominated by the same old faces which competed in 2018.

In fact, there are growing concerns that the Nov 19 election is nothing more than a complex political manoeuvre aimed at consolidating the ruling party’s power base throughout the kingdom. The United Malays National Organisation’s (Umno) influence had been put to the test following the party’s and its partners’ shock defeat in the 2018 election — the first change of government since the British left in 1957.

Their ouster saw the figurehead for the Barisan Nasional coalition, then-PM Najib Razak, jailed for his role in the plunder of Malaysia’s sovereign investment fund, 1MDB — in which over US$4.5 billion (171 trillion baht) was said to be illegally channelled out into the personal accounts of Najib’s relatives and cronies. Voters were treated with live images of the raids which followed the crackdown, in which millions of dollars worth of valuables — artworks, handbags, jewellery and so on — were seen carted out of properties belonging to Najib and his wife.

Many had hoped the scandal which ensued would be enough to keep Umno from the halls of power forever. But within 22 months of taking power, the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by veteran politician Mahathir Mohamad collapsed due to internal disagreements, paving the way for Umno’s return.

With the stage set for a snap election on Nov 19, parties have come together to form three main coalitions — the Umno-led Barisan Nasional; Perikatan Nasional led by ex-PM Muhyiddin Yassin (himself a major part of the drama which followed Mr Mahathir’s resignation, having been forced to quit over his unpopular pandemic policies); and finally, the Pakatan Harapan whose leader Anwar Ibrahim needs no introduction. What do they all have in common?

These figures, and the parties they belong to, have been the mainstay of Malaysian politics for decades. Despite the fact that six out of the 21 million people who are eligible to vote in three weeks’ time are first-time voters, none of these coalitions — all of whom had promised to field younger candidates in the hopes of connecting to a wider group of voters — are touting fresh faces.

Running the electoral show instead are veteran politicians with axes to grind — from 97-year-old Mr Mahathir, who seems determined to finish the job of getting rid of Umno once and for all, to Umno chairman Ahmad Zaid Hamidi, who wants Barisan Nasional to win to increase his chances of shaking off the 47 graft charges he is currently facing.

Observers, including Mr Mahathir, have also voiced their concerns that Najib might get a royal pardon despite his 1MDB convictions if Barisan Nasional were to win, as a convincing victory would provide a significant boost to the idea that the charges facing Najib and Mr Ahmad were part of a political vendetta orchestrated by Mr Mahathir.

Such a pardon is not unprecedented — Pakatan Harapan’s Anwar, who was once jailed for sodomy (once thought to be a fool-proof method of ending a Malay politician’s time in a deeply-conservative nation) — received a similar pardon in 2018 after his coalition managed to edge out the Umno-led bloc.

That said, a Pakatan Harapan victory won’t do much for Malaysia’s political stability either, considering how deep the enmity runs between Mr Anwar and Mr Mahathir. At one stage, Mr Anwar was supposed to take over as prime minister in a power-sharing agreement, but Mr Mahathir declined to give up his seat, opting to resign and dissolve the government instead.

Many movements aimed at “cleaning up” the government have come and gone, but the same old faces continue to dominate Malaysia’s political scene. Unfortunately, this is often the case in Southeast Asia, where clans or familial loyalties are often deeply entrenched in politics. Whether it is Marcos Jr in Manila or Jokowi in Jakarta, the story is more often than not the same. With our own election coming up in a year’s time, will Thailand be able to buck the trend?

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