The Malaysian government’s insistence on holding a general election next month during a monsoon season that will bring devastating floods risks putting politics above people’s lives, opposition lawmakers and politics. say the analysts.
Malaysia will go to the polls on November 19, the country’s election commission announced last week, after Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved parliament on October 10 when he called for a national vote to end years of political instability.
But critics say holding the election during the annual northeast monsoon season – when much of the country is likely to be flooded – is a desperate attempt to hold on to power by Ismail’s ruling coalition.
“Their strategy is clear: they want to keep voter turnout low because roads will be flooded and access to polling places will be cut off,” said Charles Santiago, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Action Party.
According to Santiago, voter turnout will be low, which would help Ismail’s Malaysian National Organization (UMNO) win the most seats in parliament.
The lawmaker filed a case in the Malaysian High Court on October 14 seeking to delay the election. The judgment of the case is expected on Friday.
Santiago said holding polls during the monsoons was an “opportunistic move” by the government and there was “no rush” to call for elections, noting that the mandate would not end until July 2023.
The government also has a responsibility to “prioritize protecting the lives of its people and not putting them in harm’s way,” he added.
“But their political career is much more important than the lives of ordinary people,” he said.
CNN reached out to the Malaysian prime minister’s office for comment on the upcoming election and flood protocols, but did not receive an official response before publication.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Prime Minister Ismail acknowledged the possibility of monsoon flooding in several parts of the country, but said he hoped it would not be “severe”.
“If floods occur in certain areas and states, we have enough personnel to rescue people, especially those affected by floods,” he said.
This would include nearly 70,000 search and rescue personnel drawn from the police and military, he said. “The number will increase if it is not enough,” he said. Boats, four-wheel drives, trucks and air assets would also be expanded, he added.
More than 6,000 flood evacuation centers were also set up, which would “double as voting centers,” he said, adding: “We are ready.”
Like most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Malaysia is vulnerable to seasonal flooding.
Last year’s flooding was the worst on record, killing 54 people and inundating tens of thousands across eight states, including the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Although officials described it as a “once-in-a-century” event, the disaster exposed the reality of extreme weather caused by climate change and put the newly elected prime minister and members of his coalition cabinet under the spotlight.
Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) founder Syed Saddiq recounts the tragedies on the ground.
“It was disastrous. People were stuck on the roofs. One of our volunteers also came across a body,” said the former Minister of Youth and Sports. “Thousands of lives were destroyed. The damage from the floods was also in the billions.’
Alleged government mismanagement and officials’ delayed response to the floods caused a huge public backlash.
“I don’t deny (weaknesses) and I will improve in the future,” Prime Minister Ismail said last December after people across the country were trapped for days by floods.
But critics say that holding elections during the monsoon season suggests that the pledge has been forgotten.
“We have politicians thinking about votes instead of saving lives,” said Syed, who said his party had been preparing flood relief all year in anticipation of the monsoon. “It is clear that they have not studied. Their decision is not only senseless and irresponsible, it is inhumane.’
Malaysia’s monsoon season has arrived early this year, and bad weather has already hit many parts of the country. Flood warnings have recently been issued in the states of Sabah and Sarawak following strong winds and incessant rain.
“Many locations across Malaysia will face catastrophic flooding during the monsoon season in November,” the Malaysian Meteorological Department said on October 6. “A lot will depend on the weather conditions… but the 15th General Election should not be held during the monsoon season.”
Despite this warning, political observers say it is likely that the vote will still go ahead.
“The prime minister had the power to dissolve parliament (on his terms) before the monsoon season,” said anti-corruption advocate Cynthia Gabriel, founding director of the Center Against Corruption and Cronyism (C4).
Gabiel said the government probably wants to profit from the divisions between the opposition parties and the low turnout at the polls.
“Possible low voter turnout due to heavy rains and possible flooding,” Gabriel said. “And it will certainly have an impact on the outcome of the general election.”
Political analyst Bridget Welsh echoed the sentiment. “Voting can go down if there are bad floods,” he said.
“UMNO wants the polls to be held as soon as possible to capitalize on what they believe is their advantage, but this may backfire because it reminds voters that they are focused on power and not people.
“If that happens, there will be public outrage and more will come out to vote.”
Lawyer and UMNO member Kamarudin Ahmad said there is “confidence” in the party’s “ability to handle any flood situation that may arise on polling day”.
“(Various) preparations have already been made,” he told CNN. “UMNO has faced difficult situations in the past. The floods will not hinder our campaign.”
But for many, surviving the expected floods will take precedence over voting.
Aini Othman, 27, from the village of Kuala Sepetang in northwestern Perak, remembers wading waist-deep in last year’s floods to bring the young members of the family to safety. “I can’t swim. But I had no choice if I wanted to save my family,” he said.
And with preparations for this year’s monsoon keeping him busy, he said he had little time to think about politics, at least for now.
“Floods will come but they will go,” he said. “Malaysians are not credible. Those who push the power will pay the price very well when the floods are over.’