The bursting of the Malaysian political spectrum
Author: Chin Huat Wong, Sunway University
A February survey suggested that 51% of Malaysians do not know who to vote for in the next election. While 17% refused to answer, the remaining 32% were divided between Perikitan Nasional (PN) of Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (16%), the former ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) (8%), the Malaysian Islamic Pan-Party (PAS) (4%) and Pakatan Harapan (PH), a coalition that replaced the BN for 22 months from May 2018 (3%).
The next federal elections in Malaysia are due to take place by September 2023, but there have been calls for new elections since last February when PH imploded under two tensions: the power struggle between Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, his promised heir Anwar Ibrahim and rival Anwar Azmin Ali; and the smear campaign by PAS and BN’s flagship party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has portrayed the PH government as betraying Malaysian Muslims.
The withdrawal from the PH in February 2020 of 26 MPs from the United Malaysian Indigenous Party of Muhyiddin (Bersatu) and 10 others from the People’s Justice Party (PKR) of Anwar, led by Azmin Ali, saw the first Malaysian federal government not led by UMNO replaced by the first unelected coalition government, PN. Ironically, UMNO and Bersatu, home to 15 former UMNO parliamentarians, soon began to fight for the allocation of future ministerial posts and constituencies. Although accompanied by a few minor parties, the PN is now reduced to a pact between Bersatu and PAS.
Muhyiddin now has a fragile parliamentary majority – 113 out of 220 deputies. His survival rests on two things: the inability of his opponents to agree on his replacement and the COVID-19 pandemic. Anwar’s several attempts to woo UMNO parliamentarians to support him for the post of prime minister failed. In the absence of an alternative prime minister, Muhyiddin’s collapse would kick off new elections, a prospect valued by UMNO but feared by the King of Malaysia after an early state election in September 2020 which spurred the third wave of COVID-19 infections in Malaysia.
In January, the king consented to Muhyiddin’s request for an emergency proclamation and suspension of parliament and elections until August 1. Per capita daily COVID-19 cases in Malaysia have now overtaken India. Some accuse Muhyiddin of exploiting the circumstances to extend the state of emergency until 2023.
A prolonged parliamentary suspension allows Muhyiddin to freely formulate policies and spend public funds. While inconsistent policies and government double standards in enforcing containment measures have elicited a public backlash, widespread opposition to the emergency has not emerged. The 38 UMNO MPs are divided over when they should unplug Muhyiddin – as two backbench MPs stepped down in January, 16 ministers and deputy ministers are unwilling to step down.
Between 2008 and 2015, Malaysian politics were organized into two multi-ethnic coalitions – the forerunner of BN and PH, Pakatan Rakyat – modeled on the British two-party system. Yet the two-coalition project pursued by opponents of BN since 1990 seems almost dead as a fragment of both government and opposition.
On the opposition side, Anwar’s PKR has been weakened by the continued defections of its deputies to Bersatu. Two of Mahathir’s proteges, the former chief minister of Sabah Shafie Apdal and the former minister of youth Syed Saddiq, join hands, and their candidates could compete with those of the PKR.
In the 2018 elections, Shafie’s PH and Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan) won power with 48% of the vote cast, with the majority split between BN (34%) and PAS (17%). Yet the next federal election promises to be even more fragmented.
East Malaysian battlefields will likely adhere to the two-block format. In Sarawak, the Sarawak Parties Alliance (GPS) will face PH. In Sabah, the People’s Coalition of Sabah (GRS) – which includes both UMNO and Bersatu – will take on Warisan and PH. Conscious of their status as kingmaker, GPS, GRS and Warisan will likely line up with the highest bidder as a whole.
The ultimate battleground will be found in the 78 constituencies in the heart of Malaysia and in the 66 demographically mixed constituencies in West Malaysia. In 2018, 55 constituencies in the heart of Malaysia did not return a majority winner in the three-way race between BN, PAS and PH. If Bersatu can crush the UMNO, it would be a victory for power over party loyalties. In mixed constituencies, PH’s prospects may depend on the participation of non-Malaysian voters and whether the PAS fully supports Bersatu and divides the Malaysian vote from UMNO / BN.
Ultimately, the next government will involve an alliance between the rival party coalitions – PN, BN and PH – which will be bolstered by the support of parties in East Malaysia. There are four possible formations: PH-BN-East Malaysians, BN-PH-East Malaysians, BN-PN-East Malaysians and PN-BN-East Malaysians.
With automatic voter registration and the lowering of the voting age to 18 expected to be implemented in 2021, a later election would mean a younger, more ethnically Malaysian and more unpredictable electorate. While the delay will give parties more time to excite unenthusiastic voters, it will give other voters time to judge parties that fail to capture the public imagination.
Chin Huat Wong is a professor at the Jeffrey Sachs Center of Sustainable Development and the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia (JCI) at Sunway University.