Malaysia’s Election: More Turmoil Ahead?
After Malaysian voters went to the polls this weekend, they delivered no clear result in parliamentary elections, a hung parliament. This in itself is a serious problem, because with no one party able to form a majority, it shows the clear cleavages in Malaysian society and opens the door for all sorts of potential horse-trading, which could slow the movement to a new parliament. More important, no clear message was given by voters that could guide politicians in a country that has been drifting politically for years.
Clear losers included former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had staged a comeback and was prime minister again in the late 2010s, but the nonagenarian was a nonplayer this time. He was ousted in his own constituency.
The traditional powerhouse, the United Malays National Organization/Barisan Nasional, also did quite poorly for a coalition that has ruled Malaysia for most of its existence—a sign that Malaysians have finally had enough of the coalition’s years of corruption and authoritarianism. Barisan Nasional appeared to have taken only around thirty of the two hundred and twenty-two seats in parliament. Undoubtedly, the massive graft of former prime minister Najib tun Razak and his wife, which came into the news again multiple times during the election season, did not help UMNO’s chances, and some of its Malay heartland vote was siphoned by a different and new coalition, the National Alliance. UMNO’s president, who claimed UMNO would win eighty seats, likely will resign in the wake of the disastrous performance. He himself barely won his seat.
The coalition of longtime reformist leader Anwar Ibrahim initially seemed like it could be the winner, although Anwar has come close before and found his coalitions collapsing. It did not secure a majority of seats on its own, though it did win the most seats with eighty-two (counting is still going on), along with an allied party. This is fewer seats than it had in the prior parliament, even though the voting age was lowered to 18, and one would imagine the younger voters often would support Anwar’s coalition.
In a very late night press conference after the vote, Anwar, the head of the party, claimed that he had put together a coalition of one hundred and twelve MPs, a bare majority, that he could take to the monarch and get his blessing to form the government.
It would seem hard at first to believe that he could pull MPs away from the National Alliance, whose values are so divergent from Anwar’s coalition. The enmity between Barisan Nasional and Anwar’s coalition is so high that it is nearly impossible to imagine Anwar making an alliance with them, either. Anwar would primarily need the support of regional parties backed by people in the two Malaysian states on Borneo, and Anwar might just have enough to get over the top—though he’d surely have to make massive promises in particular to the dominant party in Sarawak. More importantly, it appeared his rival was getting to the most important regional party first.
Meanwhile, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s National Alliance, a pro-Malay—and sometimes quite exclusionary—alliance that is in league with the country’s major Islamist party, had a good night, winning seventy-nine seats (counting is still going on) along with his allied party in Sabah. Forty-three of those seats were won by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, giving it the single highest total of any one party, according to ABC. (Anwar’s coalition contains multiple parties and none of them secured more than forty-three seats.)
The strong performance of PAS shows the rising appeal of more extreme pro-Malay sentiments (in a country where Malays already enjoy a state scheme of privileges), and to some extent more conservative Islam in parts of the country, where people are definitely becoming more supportive of Islam in politics.
After all, in his press conference where he declared he had the support of one hundred and twelve MPs, Anwar declined to say who else would be joining his heavily urban, multi-ethnic coalition until after he presented the list to the monarch. The fact that Anwar will not reveal his one hundred and twelve MPs certainly raises some suspicions that he has not yet nailed down many of them to join him, and both his coalition and the National Alliance are battling for the support of the regional parties that will be key to the balance of power.
In fact, the National Alliance might actually have a better chance, despite what Anwar claims, of forming a government, given that National Alliance leader Muhyiddin seemed to have the best, first chance to woo powerful Sarawak premier Abang Johari Openg; his party won twenty-two seats in Sarawak, and the National Alliance is well-placed to form a coalition with Barisan Nasional as well, or pick off individual members from the collapsing party if that becomes allowed.
As this blog went to publication, though, Anwar was fighting back, negotiating with the BN in hopes of excluding a completely hardline pro-Malay, and anti-pluralistic government: a BN/National Alliance, regional parties tie-up. Anwar was already negotiating this odd coalition in one state parliament at least.
It seemed possible that the National Alliance-led coalition was going to form the new government, signaling a more hardline Islamic and pro-Malay politics, and perhaps a death knell for Anwar’s pluralistic vision of Malaysia. But it also seemed possible that Anwar would win. Either way, the strong performance of the National Alliance and PAS signals a new era of potentially more overlap between politics and Islam, possible racial tension, and potentially a less pluralistic Malaysia.