OHEN ONE politician wields written pledges of support from a majority of lawmakers, stable government beckons. Two politicians brandishing the same one is a promise of chaos. And that’s what Malaysia is going through after the November 19 national and state elections.
The vote completed the country’s decade-long transformation from a restless one-party state to a fractured political mess, in which no party is close to winning a parliamentary majority. Whichever government emerges in Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy is unlikely to be stronger than the three that have come in the four years since Malaysians voted last .
Even without producing a winner, voters made a sea change. The United Malay National Organization (UM NO), who governed the country from 1957 to 2018, is on the verge of electoral oblivion. Five years ago, a UM NOThe Malaysian-led coalition held 60% of seats in the Malaysian parliament. He has since suffered a terrible series of scandals. In August, Najib Razak, a former prime minister, was jailed for 12 years on corruption charges related to a staggering theft of $4.5 billion in public funds. The party’s deeply unpopular chairman, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, faces corruption and money laundering charges (which he denies). UM NO only won 12% of the seats, making it the fourth largest party.
Several political giants fell victim to the backlash. Mahathir Mohamad, the 97-year-old who served as Malaysia’s prime minister twice, once for UM NO and once for the reformist Pakatan Harapan (pH) coalition, lost its seat in Langkawi. Voters also turned against Khairy Jamaluddin, a former health minister who led the country through the pandemic and who has already been tipped for the summit UM NO leadership. Yet even as the former ruling party succumbs to recriminations and bickering, its opponents need it to play kingmaker.
Two 75-year-old political veterans are vying for the 111 seats needed for a majority. This is Anwar Ibrahim, president of pHwhich has 81 seats, and Muhyiddin Yassin, whose Perikatan Nasional (PN) the alliance won 73 seats and whose 17-month term as prime minister ended without mourning in 2021. A host of local parties on the island of Borneo appear poised to back Mr Muhyiddin. This means that the support of UM NOThe 30-seat coalition could cede power to either of the two contenders.
The election was called early by Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the docile UM NO Prime Minister, allegedly at the request of Mr. Zahid. The UM NO The leader, who had been buoyed by a few state election victories, and Mr Sabri then campaigned together on a promise of “stability and prosperity”. Mr. Zahid meanwhile sent the opposite signal. Eager to install himself as Prime Minister, he fills the UM NO slate with sycophants and stooges. UM NOEdinburgh’s formidable electoral machine has been rocked by dissent: voters have seen an unreformed party since it was ousted from power in 2018.
This created an opportunity for the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (SAP), a member of Mr. Muhyiddin’s group PN alliance, penetrate UM NOis the rural heart of Malaysia. Its brand of political Islam, which appalls Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian minorities, is the rising force in Malaysian politics. Specifically, SAP won much of the youth vote, increased by legislation in 2019 to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. Isma Fitry, a teenager who attends the mosque and studies computer science just north of Kuala Lumpur, explains his decision to opt for SAP was a vote for good governance: “I don’t want bad people running our country.
Although both are surfing on an anti-UM NO vague, the two non-UM NO the coalitions despise each other profoundly. One of PNMalaysia’s Bersatu parties caused the collapse of the very first pH government in 2020 with a series of defections. Anwar would find it hard to explain an alliance with SAP to his many Chinese and Indian supporters. He would rather make litter with UM NO, his former party and bitter enemy of the past two decades. Mr. Anwar is a disgruntled former UM NO member, and has long-standing ties to Mr. Zahid. Sure enough, at 4 a.m. on election night, Mr Anwar emerged from behind-the-scenes negotiations to suggest he had struck a deal with Mr Zahid to form a government.
Pass the torch
But does Mr. Zahid still speak for his party? The PN The coalition also claims to have received statements of support from a majority of winning candidates. This suggests some UM NO the members have already turned on Mr. Zahid. Many UM NO the bigwigs have called for his resignation. Hishammuddin Hussein, minister of defense and eminence of the party, ruled out supporting Mr Anwar. Party doctrine suggests that the decision to back a winner in a hung parliament requires the unanimous approval of its Supreme Council, which is unlikely. Malaysia’s king first asked rival parties to prove majority support by November 21. He extended that deadline by 24 hours.
The ringgit fell against the dollar as markets realized that greater uncertainty was all but inevitable. With economic gloom on the horizon and a growing budget deficit, the next prime minister will be under pressure to implement painful economic reforms, including fuel subsidy cuts. Yet they already look whimsical. The past four years have shown how incompetent the Malaysian government can be when its leaders struggle to survive. This election result threatens more of the same. ■