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Malaysia’s recent Elections: More questions than answers

  Vignesh Ram
Assistant Professor | Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal

Malaysia’s recent Elections: More questions than answers

In brief
The recent 15th General Elections (GE15) in Malaysia concluded on 19 November 2022 without a clear decisive winner emerging with a majority to form the government. The major coalitions in Peninsular Malaysia as well as Sabah and Sarawak will decide the fate of the government formation. There are two major coalitions; the first one -the Pakatan Harapan (PH) led by political veteran Anwar Ibrahim. The second one - Perikatan Nasional (PN) led by Muhyiddin Yassin. The coalitions have, until recently (22 November 2022) declined to form a unity government as suggested by the ruling monarch as a compromise to end the deadlock over government formation. The Barisan Nasional (BN), which may be able to stabilize either side by joining either of the coalition declined to join either of the coalitions leading to a deadlock. Malaysian politics has thrown surprising outcomes since the historic mandate provided to the opposition parties in 2018 which ended the rule of an undefeated Barisan Nasional coalition after 61 years.

1. What are the major wins and losses and what does it signal?
The BN, a major component of the former ruling coalition - the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was touted to make major inroads given its track record of wining in state elections in Malacca (2021) and Johor (2022) after the UMNO’s ouster in 2018 general elections. The ability of the Pakatan Harapan coalition to gather a majority of the votes signals a shift in the voting behaviour of Malays in the elections. The old guard and key figures, including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, lost elections signalling another major shift in the thinking of the electorate against established leaders such as Mahathir and other leaders such as Azim Ali, who broke away from the PH coalition to engineer the coup bringing down the PH coalition in 2020. Despite the infighting and the intra party dynamics (which is often a sign of bad optics in Malaysian politics), the coalition managed to win the maximum seats in GE15.  

2. What are the key takeaways from the elections?
While there has been palpable anger since 2018 against the BN and its leaders including former Prime Minister Najib Razak and party President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the biggest beneficiary to take a slice of the lucrative Malay Muslim votes was the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). The PAS traditionally holds sway over the eastern peninsular states, including Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu and promotes a conservative view of political Islam in its electoral politics. However, this time the PAS which is part of the PN coalition, won 49 seats and went beyond its traditional strongholds and won in states such as Penang, which were traditionally considered liberal stronghold. PAS importantly unseated Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter, who contested the family's stronghold of Permatang Puah. The seat has been traditionally held by Anwar Ibrahim’s family over several terms. Another key takeaway from GE15 has been the importance of BN despite its loss in the elections. While PH and PN tried to work out their coalitions in the wake of the hung mandate, the BN played a key role in swaying both parties with its limited seats. The BN’s refusal to join either of the alliances has kept the political scenario in a severe state of flux.

3. What are the intra-party implications for party politics in Malaysia?
The elections signal a long-term shift in the Malaysian political space. Within the BN, dominant players such as the party chairperson Ahmad Zahid Hamidi seem to be facing flak from party members to shoulder the second successive loss for the party in a general election and quit. The infighting could force the BN to cede more ground to stay relevant and in any ruling coalition in the times to come. Similarly, within the PN coalition the PAS now being the more dominant player winning more seats than the Bersatu, could usher in a more conservative brand of Islam into Malaysian politics. This will further polarize votes among the majority Malay Muslim voters who hold the key to any major party contesting in the country. Similarly, if the PH fails to achieve its mandate this time around, it may signal an end to the patience of the voters who may see the party and its strategy as ineffective in succeeding in electoral politics.         

4. What are the ideological and personality-based impacts of the election outcome?
Malay nationalism has been a staple which helped the UMNO coalition win votes in the Malay heartland. The move was pioneered by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. Mahathirism (as it came to be known) became a brand on which successive elections were won. The loss of PM Mahathir and his heir apparent Mukhriz Mahathir both of whom lost their seats in the election, signals possibly the rejection and a split in the Malay Muslim voter base. In fact, the Gerakan Tanah Air, Mahathir’s breakaway party, lost all seats. This signals a major shift in ideologies and personality preferences of voters. Several key established and emerging leaders were ousted either based on their previous efforts of destabilizing the 2018 mandate or on their incompetence to deliver in the face of increasing economic and social pressures. 

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