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Putrajaya, Malaysia -- Malaysia will hold a snap election on November 19, officials announced Thursday, with the ruling party seeking to consolidate its comeback after its former leader was jailed for corruption.
The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which ruled the country for more than 60 years, was voted out in 2018 over a massive graft scandal, but capitalised on disarray amongst its opposition to claw back to power in 2021.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has now decided to hold elections -- a year ahead of schedule -- in a bid to expand the slim parliamentary majority of the Barislan National coalition that UMNO leads.
The election date announcement comes eight weeks after former prime minister and UMNO leader Najib Razak began serving a 12-year sentence for corruption in the 1MDB financial scandal.
Some observers now fear that an UMNO win in November could see Najib freed and further anti-graft probes quashed.
Veteran opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, head of bitter UMNO rival the Pakatan Harapan alliance, told AFP on Thursday: "We want to end graft."
"The key issues we have been raising are on cost of living, affordable housing, health, quality of education," he added.
Other parties entering the fray include Pejuang, led by 97-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has put himself forward for a third stint as premier.
Election Commission chairman Abdul Ghani Salleh said at a press conference that nomination day for candidates will be on November 5.
UMNO expects to win big and cement its rule, and while it has the political machinery to do so, it remains tainted by the 1MDB corruption scandal.
Also among those facing graft-related charges is UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
"If UMNO wins, there are concerns that the rule of law will not be honoured in Najib's conviction," said Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham Malaysia.
"Voters will be deciding effectively whether Najib and UMNO party president Zahid will not face punishment for the criminal charges they face."
Ex-premier Mahathir expressed similar concerns earlier this month, telling reporters that if UMNO won, "their first objective is to free Najib" and drop all other charges.
It was Mahathir's reformist coalition that ousted UMNO in 2018, but it lasted only 22 months in power due to infighting.
- Soaring inflation, tumbling currency -
The mega scandal surrounding the 1MDB state fund triggered investigations in the United States, Switzerland and Singapore -- whose financial systems were believed to have been used to launder the money -- and battered Malaysia's global image.
The US Justice Department has said more than $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB between 2009 and 2015 by high-level officials at the fund and their associates, with the proceeds spent on everything from high-end real estate to pricey art.
Meanwhile, the economy and the rising cost of living will also be key election issues, with inflation soaring and the local ringgit currency tumbling.
"This is a crucial election because they are electing a government that will bring Malaysia out of the pandemic and back to normality," said James Chin, a Malaysia expert at the University of Tasmania.
There are also concerns about the polls being held in the monsoon season, which usually brings widespread floods.
© Agence France-Presse