By the early morning of May 10, results from the Election Commission indicated that Malaysia’s opposition coalition had secured enough seats to prevail in the country’s general election, effectively marking the end of the world’s longest continuing ruling coalition, led by scandal-ridden premier Najib Razak, and putting the country’s longest serving leader, Mahathir Mohamad, back into office. Though an opposition coalition win would no doubt be historic, the election result has also quickly cast the Southeast Asian state into a period of uncertainty and raised questions about not just the transfer of power, but the future direction of its domestic politics and foreign policy.
The opposition’s tally in the country’s 14th general election is nothing short of historic. Though the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), had seen its support erode over the past decade under Najib – losing its much-prized two-thirds majority in 2008 and then the popular vote in 2013 – most had predicted BN would still nonetheless cling to power in GE14 by employing its usual bag of political tricks, including gerrymandering and restrictions on the opposition. Instead, by early Thursday morning, results disclosed by the country’s Election Commission showed that the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition had surpassed the 112 of the 222 seats required in parliament with 121 seats, giving it an effective simple majority, with BN winning just 79 seats.
The result was above all an indicator of the high degree of frustration among the Malaysian electorate with the status quo. Najib’s declining popularity over the years had come amidst deep discontent – not just about the much-ballyhooed 1MDB scandal, but also policies such as the unpopular goods and services tax (GST) that hurt regular Malaysians. GE14 saw huge rallies for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition alliance during the election campaign, significant turnout by Malaysians, and record losses by BN in terms of parliamentary seats. The demand for change in Malaysia was clear for all to see.
Yet while the opposition victory might mark the end of a historic election race, it also represents the start of an age of uncertainty for the Southeast Asian state. Given the unprecedented nature of the opposition’s tally, the immediate focus was around whether or not there would be a peaceful transfer of power that would see Mahathir sworn into office again as prime minister and Wan Azizah, the wife of his former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim who he once deposed and is now behind bars, will be sworn in as deputy prime minister.
Whether or not this in fact occurs still remains to be seen. During Najib’s first press conference since his party’s defeat on Thursday morning, he stopped short of conceding power, noting that no single party had received a simple majority – if the 121 seats are to be broken down by the 104 seats contested under the PKR logo along with 9 seats for the Democratic Action Party and 8 seats for Parti Warisan Sabah – and that the King would have to determine who the next premier would be. Meanwhile, Mahathir’s swearing in, initially said to be set for Thursday, was delayed. The added period of uncertainty had the effect of feeding into rumors that BN may not accept an opposition win and raising concerns about the potential outbreak of violence.
Even if a peaceful transfer of power does occur, the deeper concerns lie in how the electoral outcome is likely to affect Malaysian domestic politics and foreign policy. As of now, things still look quite unclear on both fronts. Domestically, the election campaign ahead of polls was dominated by a focus on personality attacks and cosmetic promises rather than substance, in spite of the fact that the country’s true challenges are structural and transcend party or person. Amid the vilification of Najib, for instance, one should not forget that it was Mahathir’s authoritarian rule for over two decades that paved the way for some of the trends the opposition rails against – from the erosion of Malaysia’s institutions to the lack of reforms in decades-old affirmative action policies. These are serious problems that cannot be fixed overnight no matter who is in office, and they are easier to talk about than to actually address.
It would also be a mistake to conflate a historic electoral victory with sustained political dominance should the opposition go on to govern. As remarkable a triumph as the Malaysian opposition’s is, the fact is that it took a slow accumulation of several developments – including the deepening 1MDB scandal surrounding Najib, Mahathir’s unlikely re-emergence in Malaysian politics, and deep frustrations that translated into record turnout – to get to this historic outcome. Sustaining that kind of momentum will not be an easy task, particularly if and when the opposition transitions from campaigning to governing – with Mahathir claiming he will eventually step aside – and supporters of the defeated ruling coalition begin realigning post-Najib using their deep patronage networks and other levers of influence. The pendulum could well swing back in the direction of continuity after sudden change.
Things are equally unclear on the foreign policy side as well. Beyond shallow slogans and cheap talk from the two sides – from Mahathir’s promises to restrict Chinese investments to Najib’s self-congratulatory note on the relatively good state of Malaysia-Singapore relations – there was little substantive debate about the structural problems have eroded the exercise of Malaysian foreign policy and constrained the country’s maneuverability. These include a meager defense budget that limits Malaysia from addressing growing security threats to a more divided country that dilutes the support needed for the country to wage an effective foreign policy and preserve its sovereignty from outside threats from state and nonstate actors.
Some might turn to Mahathir’s foreign policy record for a guide as to what might play out should the opposition indeed take the reins. But it has been a decade-and-a-half since he was in power, and the domestic, regional, and global realities that Malaysia confronts have changed significantly. It is also still unclear how the management of foreign relations will work under the opposition’s tenure, as well as the extent to which mulled changes will actually find their way through bureaucracies into implementation. For these reasons among others, doomsday scenarios, whether with respect to neighboring states like Singapore or major powers like the United States and China, are less likely to play out than subtler recalibrations in the country’s key relationships.
The immediate headlines so far have focused on the Malaysian opposition’s historic election tally, and deservedly so. But as the days and months progress, it will be equally important to pay attention to the country’s new period of uncertainty and what that means for how it conducts itself at home and abroad.