Elections in Malaysia are becoming a battlefield of uncertainty

Statesman Mahathir heads his own four-party coalition, Gerakan Tanah Air, which is vying for 125 seats.

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The historic victory of Malaysia’s largest opposition party in 2018 is quickly fading.

Political pundits are predicting more drama in the country’s upcoming general election on Saturday, with no certainty of a clear winner, a possible return of the old ruling party Barisan Nasional and a possible hung parliament.

Four years ago, the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan swept Barisan Nasional – the ruling coalition at the time – from power for the first time in 60 years.

Barisan’s loss came after then-Prime Minister Najib Razak failed to secure re-election amid allegations of his involvement in the multibillion-dollar embezzlement from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund 1MDB. He has now been sentenced to 12 years in prison.

But Pakatan’s victory quickly fizzled out amid infighting and the defection of coalition members.

Then Chairman and second-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned after 22 months and the coalition fell apart. The Southeast Asian nation has since had three prime ministers.

Malaysia’s political crisis has paved the way for a smorgasbord of parties and coalitions contesting the November 19 general election.

One of them is Pakatan Harapan, who is looking for a more stable victory this time around, while the new leader Anwar Ibrahim wants to become prime minister after being denied leadership for more than two decades.

The country’s 15th general election on Saturday sees a record 945 candidates running for 222 parliamentary seats.

Whether that’s a good thing is uncertain, though it underscores the democracy of this year’s election, according to ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute senior fellow Norshahril Saat.

“[Voters] now have many choices to choose from. What this means for stability, I’m not sure, but [it’s] absolutely democratic,” said Norshahril.

What to expect ahead of Election Day

Which parties should you pay attention to?

1. Pakatan Harapan is the largest opposition coalition and has fielded the largest number of candidates with 206.

In addition to Pakatan Harapan, the incumbent Barisan Nasional will participate in the draw for re-election.

2. Barisan Nationalthe country’s longest-ruling coalition, includes the coalition’s founding member and the country’s oldest political party, United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

A hung parliament would lead to political horse-trading, breakdowns and complicated negotiations between the coalitions, including who will be Malaysia’s next prime minister.

Mustafa Izzuddin

Solaris Strategies Singapore

Prime Minister Yaakob, a member of UMNO, is one of 178 candidates from Barisan Nasional contesting the election.

3. The other coalition to watch is Perikatan National which fielded 149 candidates.

Perikatan gained fame after it was established in 2020 after the defection of Pakatan Harapan members. The party coup has since been dubbed the “Sheraton Move”, named after the meeting of defecting members at the Sheraton Hotel.

Perikatan planned to replace Pakatan.

Two of those responsible for the coup, Mohamed Azmin Ali, currently the Minister of International Trade and Industry and Muhyiddin Yassin, who succeeded Mahathir after the apostasy, are key members of Perikatan.

4. Senior statesman Mahathir leads his own four-party coalition, Gerakan Tanah Air competing for 125 seats.

Important states to watch out for

According to Mustafa Izzuddin, senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore, there are some hot electoral federal seats to watch out for. They include Tambun in Perak, which is contested by Anwar, and Gombak in Selangor, which is defended by Azmin.

“It could be Anwar’s political swan song if he is defeated and a referendum on his status as leader of the opposition and his chances of becoming Malaysia’s prime minister,” Mustafa said.

“If Azmin is defeated, it will be proof that the Sheraton perpetrators will be punished by the Malaysian voters for bringing down the Pakatan Harapan government.”

Former Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib gets better treatment than me in prison: opposition leader

As in previous elections, all eyes would be on which party gets the largest share of the Malaysian vote, followed by the Chinese vote and in some seats also the Indian vote, Mustafa said.

There may also be some developments in the eastern state of Sabah, where there are “shifting political alignments” between parties and coalitions, Mustafa added.

“Watchful eyes are on the election results in Sabah as East Malaysia is likely to play a vital role in the formation of the federal government in Malaysia,” Mustafa said.

Given the sheer number of parties and candidates, a hung parliament is also likely, Mustafa added.

“This would lead to political horse-trading, glitches and complicated negotiations between the coalitions, including who will be Malaysia’s next prime minister,” he said.

What it can mean for investors

History could repeat itself, with the risk of a new coalition collapsing, especially if the resulting coalition is fragile, Mustafa said.

“In other words, a second move by Sheraton cannot be ruled out if there is no clear majority victory for one of the main coalitions.”

That said, parties and coalitions should be able to forge a governing coalition together in about two weeks, fragile or not, said deputy director at consulting firm Control Risks Harrison Cheng.

For the more skeptical segments of the electorate, this election is choosing the lesser of the two evil coalitions or the better of the worst coalitions Malaysians have to offer.

Mustafa Izzuddin

Solaris Strategies Singapore

“The [Malaysian] King would also be aware that a prolonged period in which there is no functioning government could significantly tarnish Malaysia’s reputation with investors,” he said.

The king, known in Malay as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, played a key role in restoring balance during the political crisis between 2018 and 2020.

Without an effective government, uncertainty could trickle down to business, Cheng added.

“This would affect policymaking and the adoption of regulatory reforms designed to ease business conditions. Investors may experience delays in approving new projects,” he said.

What is the sentiment among Malaysian voters?

According to Mustafa, public sentiment is mixed, mainly due to electoral fatigue and disenchantment with the country’s politics.

“At the same time, there are people who are patriotic and want their vote to reflect their choice about who represents them in their constituencies and which coalition should run the country,” he said.

Anwar Ibrahim wants to become prime minister after being denied leadership for more than two decades.

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With young people between the ages of 18 and 21 now in the electoral mix — who make up a fifth of voters — the group could be a “kingmaker” in this election, Mustafa said.

Like the Philippine presidential victory of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in May by what some call the weaponization of social media, the internet could become an election battlefield for Malaysia.

However, there were no signs that any single party or coalition had succeeded in winning the youth vote decisively, Cheng stressed.

“For the more skeptical segments of the electorate, this election is choosing the lesser of the two evil coalitions or the better of the worst coalitions Malaysians have to offer,” Mustafa said.

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