Malaysians queued at polling stations on Saturday to vote in an unpredictable general election in which millions of young and first-time voters could decide the country’s future.
Some queued for hours to vote in the election, the first to be held since a constitutional change lowered the voting age to 18 and automatically registered voters, increasing the electorate by 6 million.
While strong voter turnouts were reported at many polling stations, monsoon rains forced the suspension of voting in Baram, Sarawak, on the island of Borneo.
Voter turnout reached 70% as of 4pm, according to the election commission. This is the highest ever in history, according to BFM, a local radio station. Polling stations closed at 6pm.
The current prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, of the Umno party, called the snap election in October in an attempt to cement the mandate of his alliance, Barisan Nasional (National Front).
He faces competition from Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), led by the reformist opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, as well as from Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance), led by the former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Azmi Hassan, a senior fellow at Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research (NASR), said the youth and first-time voters could play a crucial role in determining the election outcome. “The problem is that we have no idea what their inclination is – whether they are anti-establishment or whether they are with the government, that is the Barisan Nasional, or whether they are with the independents.”
There are 1.4 million 18- to 21-year-olds newly eligible to vote, out of a total voting population of 21.1 million. It is believed to be the first time people under 40 make up the majority of the electorate.
Analysts say it is unlikely there will be a clear majority – which requires a minimum 112 of 222 parliamentary seats.
The outcome is hard to predict, added Azmil, but it is likely to be Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan vying to form a government.
Pakatan Harapan is hoping to repeat the success it achieved in the 2018 election, when it ousted Barisan Nasional from power, riding a wave of public anger over the multibillion-dollar 1MDB financial scandal. Najib Razak, a former prime minister, was imprisoned recently for 12 years on charges related to 1MDB.
The Pakatan Harapan reformist alliance lasted less than two years and collapsed in 2020, however, which allowed Barisan Nasional to form a government. Barisan Nasional has since been boosted by recent success in state elections.
Many voters are fatigued with political instability, which has led to the country having three different prime ministers in four years. However, turnout appeared to be strong at polling stations.
Lim Shin Tom, a 32-year-old medical officer at Banting hospital in Selangor state, was among those voting for the first time at a polling station in Petaling Jaya. He had not been able to vote previously due to his working hours.
He was excited to be voting, he said, but added that he was tired of the political situation. Politicians, he said, were “pointing fingers at each other’s mistakes and wrongdoings instead of actually coming up with ways to improve the country, especially with our current national debt and weak currency”.
He would be voting for change, he said, and expected his family and friends to do the same.
Imran Leon Ismael, 33, who is studying in Australia, and is also first-time voter, said he had not voted in the past because he felt cynical towards politics, but added: “Now I’m feeling optimistic about chances, so I decided to take a leap of faith.”
He wanted “stability, transparency and accountability”, he said.
The soaring cost of living is also a key concern for voters.
Stephanie Jacob, who works in corporate communications and had been volunteering at the polling station in Petaling Jaya since 6.30am, said she hoped future leaders would focus on the economy.
“I was lucky my family wasn’t affected by Covid directly in terms of losses but of course there’s a lot of people I know who have lost jobs, lost their income and generally struggling. I think it’s been hard for a lot of the younger folks as well so they really need to look into job security and economic issues,” she said.
A survey by pollster Merdeka Centre on the eve of the elections showed Anwar’s coalition winning 82 seats, ahead of Barisan Nasional and Perikatan Nasional.
Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader and former deputy prime minister, has had a tumultuous political career, including being imprisoned for sodomy, a charge widely criticised as politically motivated.
He was due to lead the country as part of a power-sharing deal when his alliance was elected in 2018 but the government collapsed before he could take office.
He has promised reforms such as limiting the prime minister’s term to 10 years, and making assistance needs-based rather than race-based.
The election could be his final chance to gain power. “I am cautiously optimistic,” Anwar told reporters after casting his vote Saturday. “We can’t expect the country to progress if we do not affect meaningful change as a united Malaysian nation.”