On August 12, Malaysian voters in six of the country’s 13 states will go to the polls to elect new state assemblies. The elections figure as a referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and a stress-test for his “unity” government, nine months after his appointment following a close-run general election.
Bridget Welsh, a long-time analyst of Malaysian politics, who currently serves as an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, spoke to The Diplomat about the expected outcomes, what’s at stake for Anwar, and the political realignments taking place amid growing demands for democracy and intensifying ethno-religious polarization.
What can we glean about the likely outcomes of the upcoming six state elections from the results of last November’s general election (GE15?)
Despite being a contest of six state elections, the election has been couched as a referendum on the Anwar government, which continues to face a strengthening opposition that is appealing to neo-ethnic nationalism and economic discontent as the country recovers from COVID-19.
Anwar has been caught up in Malaysia’s ethnicized politics. His electoral deficit is concentrated among Malay voters, who have yet to give him support and have been mobilized by the opposition led by the Islamist party PAS. At the same time, non-Malays, especially Indians, feel ignored by the government with its focus on winning the Malays to their exclusion.
Malaysia remains highly politically polarized along ethnic lines with many youth voters willing to embrace opposition forces for change. The youth favoring change has advantaged the opposition. At the same time, the elections show Malaysia’s rising democracy, with a more demanding electorate and higher expectations on leaders.
The all-Malay Perikatan Nasional (PN) opposition is clearly attempting to position itself as a defender of race and religion. In an interview with Reuters last month, former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said that PN “will be the party of choice for the Malays. They will trust us to fight for the cause to protect their interests and of Islam.” How does PN’s pitch, and that of PAS, which is now dominant within the coalition, differ from that of UMNO during its years in power at the head of the Barisan Nasional coalition?
Bersatu is emerging in the state election as a more important actor in the coalition in contests such as those in Negeri Sembilan, a state that has long opposed PAS. The combination of Bersatu – made up primarily of ex-UMNO members – and PAS reflects the foundation for a new neo-ethnonationalism that combines Islam with Malay power. It is more exclusionary and conservative and appeals to greater empowering of the Malay community. PN is continuing to displace UMNO, not just in electoral support but in the ethno-national narratives.
Do you see any indications that this message is resonating with Malay voters ahead of August 12, particularly the possibility that PAS could build on the gains of GE15 and further extend its reach outside its traditional strongholds?
Yes. PN is gaining support from former UMNO supporters in particular.
The PN appears to have at least some chance of wresting control of the state assemblies of Negeri Sembilan and Selangor, which are currently held by Pakatan Harapan (PH), and has certainly expressed its confidence in doing so. What are the political implications for the PH-led government should one of these states “fall” to PN? What is at stake?
The stakes are high as a change of government in these states will impact Malaysia’s economic recovery, investment prospects, and reflect growing ethnic polarization, making the country harder to govern. A loss in either of these states will be a blow to Anwar as they are led by his party and trigger continued pressures of political stability, including within his broad “unity” government coalition and from a more empowered opposition. If he offsets these, which is most likely in Negeri Sembilan as Selangor remains more competitive, then he will have overcome this hurdle and can focus more on policies and programs to address the underlying concerns of voters.
How do you assess the likely performance of UMNO, which once claimed to represent the interests of the Malay majority, but after a record poor performance at GE15, appears to have relinquished this status to PN?
All indications are that UMNO will perform poorly, but it remains unclear how poor it will perform in the Malay heartland states of Terengganu, Kelantan, and Kedah, where it faces the most risk of losing the most seats. Its performance in Selangor will also be a reflection of limited leadership renewal, and continued concerns with the party’s leadership of Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
How important will be the involvement of ethnic Indian and ethnic Chinese voters, and where do you think they might play a decisive role?
They make the difference in many of the close races, even in places where they are small in number. The Indian vote has been especially emotive this election due to a viral video of how the Prime Minister responded to a young female Indian student’s questions about quotas. The Indian community were pivotal in bringing Pakatan Harapan into government in Selangor and Penang in 2008 and Negeri Sembilan and Kedah in 2018. If their votes move or don’t turn out, this will advantage the opposition PN.
Many more younger voters will be taking part in these elections, following the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18. What is your assessment as to how this played out in GE15, and how might it impact the upcoming state races?
Youth were the drivers of a growing opposition, but the interpretation of this as a “green wave” is overinterpreted and only relevant in some states in Malaysia. Many youth just voted for change, and others believed that PN would bring about greater political stability and a stronger economy, which was their narrative on TikTok, which they overwhelmingly dominate. The youth (voters under 30) are important in almost half of the state seat contests, not only in terms of numbers where they make up a third of the electorate, but also in the swings in their vote. They are also the group most concerned about economic issues and less attached to political parties, so swing voters. So far, they are leaning primarily towards the opposition, with a focus on change.