A bloc of ethnic Malay nationalist parties is likely to form Malaysia’s next government, two days after an election that resulted in the first hung parliament in the country’s history.
At Saturday’s election, the country’s fragmented electoral landscape was reflected in the fact that no single party won the 112 seats needed to form government alone, initiating a a period of frenzied coalition negotiations. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s multiethnic Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance, which won the general election in 2018, was the single best performer in the election, winning 82 federal out of 222 parliamentary seats.
But the party most likely to form the nucleus of the next government is the Malay-centric Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance, led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Written off by most pundits before the election, Muhyiddin’s alliance unexpectedly clinched 73 federal seats.
In negotiations Sunday, The Associated Press reported, Muhyiddin’s coalition edged closer to the finish line after securing the backing of the Sarawak-based coalition Gabungan Parti Sarawak, which won 22 seats. He still needs the support of the long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to muster a majority. Under this arrangement, which would then need to be confirmed by Malaysia’s king, Muhyiddin would return as prime minister, just over a year after his resignation.
Malaysia’s fifteenth general election was perhaps most notable remarkable implosion of UMNO and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which prior to its shock defeat in 2018, had ruled Malaysia continuously since independence in 1957. In the run-up to the poll, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s party had hoped to restore its preeminence in Malaysian politics, but UMNO won just 30 seats on Sunday after suffering major upsets across the country.
The result spells a possibly terminal end for Malaysia’s Grand Old Party, which won 148 seats at the 1999 and 2003 elections, 140 seats in 2008, and 133 seats in 2013, before managing just 79 in its loss to PH in 2018. Underscoring the “end of an era” quality of GE15 was the defeat of 97-year-old Mahathir Mohamad in his longtime constituency of Langkawi. Mahathir headed an UMNO/BN government from 1981 to 2003, before defecting from the party and helping lead PH to its victory in 2018.
However, the toppling of UMNO/BN from its perch does not necessarily point to a more progressive or ethnically inclusive future for Malaysian politics. Despite being the most successful single party, PH’s vote also declined from the 113 that enabled it to form government in 2018 – in large part because of the absence of Muhyiddin’s Malay-centric party Bersatu (now part of PN), whose withdrawal from the PH government in early 2020 precipitated its collapse. This suggests that the electoral constituency supportive of a multi-ethnic politics falls below the threshold able to win and hold government.
Moreover, PN’s success demonstrates that the notion of Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy, that UMNO has long championed remains very much a major current in Malaysian politics, despite an unusually large influx of first-time voters due to the recent lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18.
Indeed, the real winner from Saturday’s election was arguably the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a part of the PN coalition, which more than doubled its number of seats from 18 in 2018 to 49 this year. PAS hails from the more exclusivist and chauvinist end of the ethnic Malay political spectrum: it advocates the introduction of Sharia law, which it has partially introduced rules in the three states that it rules, and is now the single largest party within PN.
In an article yesterday, Jahabar Sadiq, the CEO and chief editor of The Malaysian Insight, argued that PAS profited most from the election’s “Malay tsunami,” by setting itself against the corruption and in-fighting of UMNO/BN. “The considerable PAS grassroots machinery worked tireless in rural and semi-urban areas to snatch seats from UMNO and even [Anwar’s party] PKR,” he wrote.
The result of GE15 should therefore be seen more as a repudiation of UMNO/BN as an institution than a rejection of the precepts of Ketuanan Melayu as such. Indeed, the rise of PAS points to the increasing Islamization of the Malay identity politics that has dominated the country since independence.