Malaysia is braced for major floods. So why is it holding an election?

The Malaysian government’s insistence on holding a snap general election next month during a monsoon season that’s expected to bring devastating floods risks putting politics above people’s lives, opposition lawmakers and political analysts say.

Malaysia will head to the polls on November 19, the country’s election commission announced last week, following Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s dissolution of 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 onto power by Ismail’s ruling coalition.

“Their strategy is clear: they want to keep voter turnout low because roads will be flooded and accessibility to polling stations will be cut off,” said Charles Santiago, a member of parliament for the opposition Democratic Action Party.

Santiago believes voter turnout will be low, which would help Ismail’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to win a majority of seats in parliament.

The lawmaker filed a lawsuit with Malaysia’s High Court on October 14, seeking to delay the election. A verdict in the case is expected on Friday.

Santiago said holding the vote during the monsoon was an “opportunistic move” by the government and there was “no rush” to call for elections, noting their term was not due to end until July 2023.

The government also has a responsibility to “prioritize protecting the lives of its people and not put them in harm’s way,” he added.

“But their political careers are far more important than the lives of ordinary people,” he said.

CNN reached out to the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office for comment about the upcoming election and flood protocols but did not receive any official response before publication.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, Prime Minister Ismail acknowledged the possibility of monsoon floods in several parts of the country but said he hoped they would not be “severe.”

“If flooding occurs in certain areas and states, (we have) sufficient personnel to save people, especially those affected by floods,” he said.

This would include nearly 70,000 search and rescue workers drawn from the police and the army, he said. “The number will be increased if it is not enough,” he said. Boats, four-wheel drives, trucks and air assets would also be deployed, he added.

More than 6,000 flood evacuation centers had also been set up, which would “double as voting centers,” he said, adding: “We are prepared.”

Malaysia’s devastating 2021 floods

Like most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Malaysia is vulnerable to seasonal floods.

Last year’s deluge was the worst ever recorded — 54 people died and tens of thousands were displaced by floodwaters across eight states, including in the capital Kuala Lumpur.

While officials called it a “once in a century” event, the disaster exposed the reality of extreme weather caused by climate change and shone a spotlight on the Prime Minister and members of his coalition cabinet who had newly come to power.

Syed Saddiq, founder of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), recounted tragedies on the ground.

“It was woeful. People were stuck on rooftops. One of our volunteers even came across a corpse,” the former youth and sports minister said. “Thousands of lives were destroyed. Flood damage also amounted to billions.”

Alleged government mismanagement and officials’ delayed responses to the floods sparked a huge public backlash.

“I don’t deny (the weaknesses) and will improve in the future,” Prime Minister Ismail said last December after people across the country were trapped for days by floodwaters.

But critics say holding an election during the monsoon season suggests that pledge has been forgotten.

“We have politicians thinking about votes instead of saving lives,” Syed said, adding that his party had been preparing flood relief for the best part of a year in anticipation of the monsoon. “They clearly haven’t learned. Their decision is not only an unconscionable and irresponsible one, it is inhumane.”

Weather warning

Malaysia’s monsoon season has arrived early this year, with bad weather already hitting several parts of the country. Flood alerts were recently issued in the states of Sabah and Sarawak following days of strong winds and continuous rain.

“Many locations throughout Malaysia will face possible flood disasters during the monsoon season in November,” the Malaysian Meteorological Department said on October 6. “It will depend a lot on weather conditions… but the 15th General Elections should not be held during the monsoon.”

Despite that warning, political observers said the vote was still likely to go ahead.

“The prime minister had the prerogative to dissolve parliament (on his own terms) just ahead of the monsoon season,” said anti-corruption advocate Cynthia Gabriel, founding director of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4).

Gabriel said the government is likely seeking to benefit from divisions among opposition parties and a low turnout at the polls.

“Low voter turnout due to heavy rains and potential flooding is likely,” Gabriel said. “And it will definitely impact the outcome of the general election.”

Political analyst Bridget Welsh echoed the sentiment. “Voter turnout may drop if bad floods do occur,” she said.

“UMNO wants polls to be held as soon as possible to capitalize on what they think is their advantage but that can backfire because it will remind voters that their focus is on power and not people.

“If that happens, (there will be) public anger and more will come out to vote.”

Kamarudin Ahmad, a lawyer and member of UMNO, said he was “confident” in the party’s ability to “manage 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. Floods will not pose any obstacles to our campaigning.”

But for many, surviving the expected coming floods will take priority over voting.

Aini Othman, 27, from the town of Kuala Sepetang in the northwestern state of Perak, recalls wading waist deep during last year’s floods to bring young family members to safety. “I can’t swim. But I had no choice if I wanted to save my family,” she said.

And as preparations for this year’s monsoon kept her busy, she said she had little time to think about politics — at least for now.

“The floods will come but they will go,” she said. “Malaysians are not gullible. Those pushing for power may very well pay the price when the floods are over.”

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