Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Democracy in Crisis: Where Does Malaysia Go From Here?

Only a general election can rescue Malaysia’s democracy, but not its stability.

Brian Wong
Democracy in Crisis: Where Does Malaysia Go From Here?

Malaysian interim leader Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a press conference at his office in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Feb. 27, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

On Monday, February 24, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad resigned as the prime minister of Malaysia and as chairman of his party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). At the age of 94, Mahathir had been serving as the country’s seventh prime minister, having previously served as the fourth prime minister as a member of Barisan Nasional (BN), a coalition that had governed Malaysia for 60 years until its defeat in 2018. Mahathir’s resignation signaled an end to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition – touted by many as a literal alliance of hope for the country, and derided by cynical critics as a marriage of convenience.

Old Feuds, New Blood

In the 2018 elections, BN was replaced by the fragile yet collectively tenacious, broad-church coalition PH. Spearheaded by Mahathir until this past Monday, the coalition had also featured the multiracial, secular Democratic Action Party (DAP), led by Lim Guan Eng, the most prominent Chinese in Malaysian politics; the People’s Justice Party (PKR), led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim; and the National Trust Party (AMANAH) (Mohamad Sabu). Mahathir brought the coalition into power, winning 121 out of the 222 seats in Parliament in the 14th General Election.

It was agreed between Mahathir and his allies that he would serve as an interim caretaker leader of government following the victory. Mahathir would then – at an appropriate time, reportedly two years into his tenure – initiate the transition process to hand over power to his deputy, and his nemesis for past decades, Anwar. Once Mahathir’s protégé, Anwar fell out of favor with his mentor, who viewed his rebelliousness and surging popularity as a threat to his power, in the 1990s.

Yet since coming into power, Mahathir has remained taciturn and elusive on his succession planning. In the meantime, factions within the coalition bickered and sparred viciously over when it would be suitable, if ever, for Mahathir to hand over power to Anwar in a country filled with significant uncertainty and insidious political undercurrents. As rising tensions loomed over Mahathir’s repeated delaying of his handover to Anwar, a mixture of political maneuvers, backroom deals, and illicit exchanges spurred increasing balkanization within the coalition – which had already been vastly divergent in ideology and positions to begin with. DAP was relatively secular and multiethnic, whereas Bersatu sought to pander to the Malay majority within the country; AMANAH practiced a reformist brand of Islam, whereas Anwar’s PKR was broadly center-left and progressive.

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As Anwar grew impatient, so did his enemies. Members of PH – less loyal to Mahathir than firmly opposed to Anwar’s accession – had reportedly been in talks with UMNO, the lead party of the former BN coalition, over forming a new coalition sans Anwar. Mahathir loyalists were well-aware that had UMNO joined forces with those allied with Mahathir, the prime minister would have sufficient seats to form a new majority government.

Thus, after pressure once again mounted from parliamentarians aligned with Anwar from PKR, DAP, and AMANAH at the Presidential Council meeting on February 21, the anti-Anwar faction of 11 PKR MPs (led by party Deputy President Azmin Ali) broke away from the ruling coalition this Monday. By then, Azmin had already been dismissed by his former mentor Anwar, alongside PKR Vice President Zuraida Kamaruddin. Speculations abound over Ali’s role in forcing Mahathir to snub Anwar, Ali’s once-mentor and now-competitor for the coveted leadership position.

After resigning on Monday, Mahathir was appointed by the King of Malaysia (“Agong”) interim prime minister to head the seemingly Herculean task of forming a new government. Mahathir actively distanced himself from Ali’s botched coup attempt, by affirming on Monday that he remained on good terms with Anwar and did not approve of Ali’s defection. Parties across the aisle initially pledged loyalty to the prime minister, declaring that they would be most willing to set aside political differences to back the ageing statesman. Even BN and Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) – Mahathir’s recent enemies – dropped apparent hints that they would be strongly open to working with the prime minister.

Yet Mahathir’s speech on Wednesday evening both surprised many while affirming many others’ worst fears. In his first open address since Monday, he conveyed his strong disapproval toward Bersatu and the 11 PKR defectors who led to the demise of the PH government. He explicitly rebuked suggestions that he should work with UMNO – saying that he was “willing to accept UMNO members who leave UMNO and join other parties. But as for UMNO joining a unity government as UMNO, this I cannot accept.” Mahathir also called for an allegedly nonpartisan, cross-bench government that brought together MPs independent of their partisan allegiances or affiliations. The takeaway that many drew from the speech was that Mahathir would not be willing to explicitly and decisively pick a camp to align with; if anything, the statesman appeared to be betting on his popularity (albeit declining) and concerns about political instability as the key factors driving individual MPs to break party ranks and join him on his quasi-Quixotic quest for a new government.

In the meantime, the nominally ruling PH declared that in light of Mahathir’s latest statements, it would opt to support Anwar as its prime minister candidate. BN and PAS called on Agong to dissolve Parliament and call for the country’s 15th General Election. No camp out of the remaining PH coalition, the BN-PAS alliance, and the swing MPs wavering between Mahathir, PH, and BN-PAS currently is capable of mustering a majority in parliament. The closest out of the three clusters is PH, with 92 MPs – still 20 short of a majority.

According to Mahathir, the king has opted to order Parliament to vote to select a new prime minister on March 2. If no candidate commands a majority, “then we will have to go for a snap election,” Mahathir said Thursday.

Democracy in Crisis

Robert Dahl, in his 1989 work, argues that the ideal democracy excels on five criteria – effective participation, voting equality, enlightened understanding, agenda-setting powers, and inclusiveness. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Democracy Index is composed of five similar indicators – electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture.

More generally, political scientists measure democracy through three core variables – representativeness (the extent to which the public’s opinions and interests are represented through formal political institutions), participation (the extent to which individuals are capable of influencing decision-making), and fairness (the extent to which politicians and players comply with rules of transparency and openness, as opposed to being guided by corruption and nepotistic favoritism).  It suffices to say that Malaysian democracy is in crisis, irrespective of which of the following possibilities ends up materializing as reality.

Scenario 1: Mahathir’s Last Stand  

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Mahathir’s “non-partisan” government is likely to form only if at least one of the following rings true: first, enough MPs are massively apprehensive of a new General Election (e.g. those in the PH coalition in marginal seats, whose popularity has declined in light of the general resurgence of BN-PAS since 2018); second, Mahathir’s personal popularity and ability to offer concessions and favorable terms are sufficient in incentivizing swing MPs to incur the risks of breaking party ranks to join him on his Mission Impossible; or either one or more party in the BN-PAS or PH coalitions pivots toward Mahathir out of political loyalty or convenience.

To the extent that such a cross-party administration is formed, it is likely that the Malaysian public will have no say or control over either the composition of those appointed, or the portfolios to which they are assigned. Such a government, given the constraints of both internal divisions and the disproportionate emphasis upon Mahathir as its linchpin, is likely to be precariously unstable at best, if not paralyzed at worst. More importantly, the superficial depoliticization and introduction of “neutrality” into governance here could imply a significant shift toward populist pandering in marginal or risky seats held by MPs and a dialing-up of Malay-centric policies by the government leadership to appease the Malay majority in West Malaysia. Should the Sarawak-based Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) still pledge its 18 MPs in support of Mahathir (as it did up till Wednesday), this may pave the way for more devolution of powers to East Malaysia, as well as inflaming the already-reignited talk of East Malaysian secession.

Yet the commonality across all of these potentialities is that none of them is a democratically authorized outcome by the Malaysian public. The people did not vote for a coalition of scattered MPs coalesced around Mahathir (even though some among them might have expected this to be the de facto outcomes). Nor did they opt for a prime minister who could appoint his cabinet with minimal checks and balances, thus flagrantly defying both the requirements of access to agenda-setting and accurate representation. Even if entire parties defected from the coalitions on either side to support Mahathir, by allowing them to become the effective king-maker, this outcome would only further undermine the equality of consideration principle that governs democratic politics. Voter disillusionment is likely to be particularly severe if, despite his resignation and the past days of turbulence, Malaysian politics is returned to the hands of Mahathir.

Scenario 2: Old Enemies Reunited

A coalition comprising the BN-PAS (or parts of it) and Mahathir’s camp was touted by many speculators as a likely outcome following from Mahathir’s surprise victory in 2018. After all, Mahathir’s Bersatu is ideologically highly similar to BN-PAS, but for the theoretically minor but practically significant divergence over the fate of Najib Razak – Mahathir’s disgraced predecessor. With Najib summoned to the palace to discuss the future of Malaysian politics with Agong, it remains distinctly possible, albeit unlikely, that Mahathir forms a tentative coalition or weak alliance with his new enemies and once allies.

Should this coalition come into power, the new government is likely to be deeply damaging to minority representation of non-Malay ethnicities within the country. BN-PAS maintained power through operating a largely Bumiputera (indigenous Malay)-centric policy that alienated and disadvantaged ethnic Chinese and Indian citizens in the country. While Mahathir’s ethnocentrism has been hitherto significantly diluted by his coalition partners (see, for instance, his moderated attempts to introduce race quotas for workers in multibillion dollar projects, such as the China-backed East Coast Rail Link), it is likely that in order to regain relative popularity alongside his newfound partners, he would pivot toward an even more explicitly Malay-first governance agenda. Political polarization and de facto segregation across the country are likely to be exacerbated, as urban cities and regions with large Chinese populations (e.g. Kuala Lumpur and Penang) struggle to maintain collaborative ties and balanced interactions with the more Malay-concentrated countryside and cities in the country.

Moreover, on the dimension of fairness (transparency and openness), unless Mahathir succeeds in absorbing only the anti-Najib faction within the BN-PAS alliance (which may not be sufficient for him to obtain a clear-cut majority in parliament), he must also face compromising on economic and criminal justice reforms that he implemented in a direct rebuke of BN-PAS policies, alongside a potential termination of the proceedings against Najib. While Mahathir is unlikely to find these requirements attractive, he may be forced into this option should he fail to find more sustainable alternatives to retain power.

Many of Mahathir’s allies would not favor this outcome – save the 11 defecting MPs from PKR and certain segments of Bersatu. Should this coalition form and last until the next General Election, it is likely that many will hemorrhage votes as voters desert them for either the “real deal” of existing BN-PAS parties, or alternative, radical progressive parties. Furthermore, given Mahathir’s latest statements and comments, this scenario is unlikely to materialize.

Scenario 3: New Enemies Reconciled

An alternative scenario is for Mahathir to offer a new deal with members of PH. Until Wednesday, the dominant view among PH leaders had been largely amenable to the prospects of a Mahathir premiership. Two barriers stand between the present and this option becoming reality – first, Mahathir effectively accepting that Anwar would have a role to play in this “re-amended coalition,” and second, Mahathir’s personal desire to maintain the image of a non-capitulatory strong man. It is distinctly possible that PH may opt to abandon Anwar and pivot toward Mahathir again, but this move would not only substantially damage the credibility of MPs within PH, but also dispense with much of the new bargaining capital that PKR, DAP, and AMANAH have found over the past four days.

Would this option not be a return to normalcy? No – the most likely implications are a continuation of the ongoing power struggles between Anwar, Mahathir, and miscellaneous factions between them. Such struggles would not only cloud Malaysian politics with unhealthy uncertainty, but also trigger widespread interfactional disputes and tensions. Such antagonism would in turn be detrimental to the efficacy of decision-making – already it has been observed that the internal turmoil within PH has led to disjunction and animosity between departments. A broken vase that is reassembled is likely to show cracks despite the best efforts of all parties. For one, Azmin would probably be expelled from this new coalition, among the various conditions offered by Anwar allies.

More fundamentally, neither Mahathir nor Anwar is likely to be at peace with such a contingent arrangement. Even if Anwar and Mahathir were able to “set aside their differences” and work in a renewed partnership, the events of the past few days are likely to leave long-lasting damage to their relationship.

A majority of Malaysian voters sought change in their politics when they voted for a party they had never voted for previously. They sought to upend the cronyism and nepotism permeating Malaysian politics, as well as an end to perceived foreign encroachment and collusion under Najib’s leadership. A “business as normal” outcome would establish the subtle perception that drastic and radical coups could be staged at little to no cost to the careers of most individuals (save from, of course, the original instigators).

Scenario 4: GE15 – The Only Democratic Option

The only democratic option, as of now, is another general election. Only by going to the polls again could the country’s voters – having taken in at least some (certainly not all) of the information revealed over the past week – make an informed choice on the country’s future. Despite its political intrigue, Malaysia’s elections are, while imperfect, broadly procedurally open and accessible. By fielding challenges and questions from skeptical or critical voters, MPs must reorient their attention to campaigning for their vision of a better Malaysia.

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Whether it be promising political stability, an end to cantankerous infighting, genuine structural reforms, or more grounded and less rhetorically powerful goals, politicians in the country would be compelled by the election to return to the drawing board of policymaking and advocacy as they struggle to retain their seats in Parliament. More importantly, a new general election sends out a clear message that political infighting and poorly executed coups are neither likely to succeed, nor can be permitted to succeed in the country.

Critics may worry about the instability caused by another general election, especially in face of the coronavirus outbreak that has been taking Asia by storm, but also given the tense status quo on the ground in Malaysia. These worries are not unfounded. Yet it should be remembered that the democratic outcome is not always a stable one. It may well be the case that no one wins a majority in the Parliament, in which case the above uncertainty persists. It may also be the case that BN-PAS regain power and restore many of their previous policies, thereby stifling the dreams and hopes of many who saw the 2018 election as a turning point in Malaysian politics. It may even be the case that a PH without Mahathir wins a slim majority, and continues to govern under a new leader – most possibly Anwar.

Yet whatever happens, Malaysian politics is unlikely to return to the “normal” in the short-term, foreseeable future. The past days have been some of the most uncertain and troubling moments in the country’s recent political history – but it has certainly seen worse in the past.

Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar-Elect from Hong Kong (2020), and a current MPhil in Politics Candidate at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. They are the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review, Founding Director of Citizen Action Design Lab, Founding Fellow of Governance Partners Yangon, and a frequent contributor to the South China Morning Post, Times Higher Education, Asia Times, and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.