The potential impacts of Malaysia postponing by-elections as COVID-19 cases rise

It may be some time before Malaysians go the polls as COVID-19 cases rise. Photo: Firdaus Latif, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A series of postponed by-elections in Malaysia are taking on extra strategic significance as the political battle for the country’s leadership continues amid a recent increase in COVID-19 cases.

By Umair Jamal

On November 18, Malaysia’s King declared a state of emergency in Batu Sapi, resulting in the cancellation of the region’s planned by-election.

The country’s Election Commission (EC) has decided to adhere to the government’s decision to postpone the by-election as it is not administratively possible due to the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Malaysia.

The government is planning to advise the King to declare states of emergency in other constituencies where by-elections are scheduled.

At this point, it is unclear if the move to postpone several upcoming elections is politically motivated. However, the state of emergency in Batu Sapi and the decision to delay other elections will eventually place the ruling coalition in an advantageous position.

Why is Malaysia set for a series of by-elections?

The Batu Sapi parliamentary seat became vacant following the death of its member of parliament (MP) Datuk Liew Vui Keong on October 2. Datuk Hasbullah Osman, an MP who represented the Gerik constituency, died on November 16 after suffering a heart attack.

On November 17, Bugaya representative Manis Muka Mohd Darah of Parti Warisan Sabah also died—reportedly due to a pre-existing kidney illness.

According to Malaysia’s constitution, the EC must hold an election within 60 days of any parliamentary seat becoming vacant. Two months ago, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s ruling coalition won an election in Sabah state which boosted the weak government against several political challengers.

Muhyiddin’s coalition still only rules with a two-seat majority and these upcoming elections have taken on strategic significance for the ruling party. Reportedly, Muhyiddin’s government is planning to declare a state of emergency in both Gerik and Bugaya.

The government claimed that its decision is motivated by putting the health of its people first as these constituencies are high-risk COVID-19 areas. The entire country is braced against an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases, with the number of infections rising swiftly since September. However, it is not certain if COVID-19 is the only reason behind the government’s plans for these by-elections.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Photo: U.S. Department of State from United States / Public domain

Does the move to postpone the election favor the ruling coalition?

Malaysia’s EC’s decision to postpone the Batu Sapi by-election will prove beneficial for the ruling coalition. In Batu Sapi, it does not have a strong candidate and would likely lose the by-election were it to be held.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs argued: “If they [ruling coalition] contest now, it is almost certain they will lose. I cannot say how much of the decision was politically motivated, but the move is akin to killing two birds with one stone.”

If the government’s actions were purely driven by health reasons, the government could also have taken the option of seat adjustment with the opposition parties to complete the electoral process. However, the government has not followed this route, which “invites speculation that it was done to at least stall, if not preclude a likely Warisan win,” according to Sun.

Tony Paridi Bagang, a political analyst at Universiti Teknologi MARA Cawangan in Sabah, believes that delaying the election gives the ruling party time to fine-tune its electoral plans in time for the eventual by-election.

“Chance of winning for Warisan is high,” he said. “No election means no representative for the moment and the opposition lacks one seat. So, although it is very possibly an intentional political move, the main justification, and one that is valid, is for the people’s health and safety during these times,” he added.

What does it mean for the ongoing political conflict in the country?

It is possible that the government is using the existing health crisis to thwart the opposition’s attempts to remove Muhyiddin from power. The prime minister recently said that Malaysia will hold a general election once the coronavirus pandemic is over.

“God willing, when COVID-19 is over, we will hold a general election,” Muhyiddin said in a speech at a recent meeting of his Bersatu Party. “We will return the mandate to the people and leave it to them to choose which government they want,” he added.

Both the government’s push to postpone upcoming by-elections and Muhyiddin’s announcement that he will call a general election following the coronavirus pandemic seem politically motivated. For instance, there is no clear way of determining when the pandemic is going to end or what the government means when it says when COVID-19 is over.

Furthermore, the King declaring a state of emergency to postpone an election due to the COVID-19 crisis means that the government now has a precedent to undermine any attempts by the opposition to table a vote of no confidence.

The government is now in position to characterize attacks against it as attacks on the public’s safety. Highlighting the ongoing political crisis in the country, Muhyiddin also noted that “I know the people are fed up with the unending politicking. The people want political leaders to help them, not constantly fight for power.”

This essentially means that it may be some time before Malaysians go to the polls again to vote in a general election. By the time the government is ready to announce it has defeated COVID-19, it may have developed better political battle plans to take on the opposition at the ballot box.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15