Malaysians Were Pitched Political Stability. Elections Created More Chaos.


A prime minister accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars. The national patriarch coming out of retirement to oust him in a historic election. Infighting within the new government, forcing the patriarch’s resignation. Two new prime ministers in less than two years.

The political turmoil in Malaysia, the incumbent coalition government promised, would end with elections that were held on Saturday. Sensing an opportunity to strengthen its grip on power, the government had moved up national elections by a year and urged voters to usher in a new era of stability by issuing it a renewed mandate to govern.

But the gamble backfired. The incumbent coalition ended up winning far fewer seats than two rival groups. And now Malaysia is grappling with the first hung Parliament in its history and political uncertainty that has only multiplied.

“The whole thing is a complete mess,” said James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania and an expert on Malaysian politics.

Pakatan Harapan, a reform-minded multiethnic opposition coalition, was leading with 82 seats. And in a surprise to political pundits, Perikatan Nasional, a far-right nationalist coalition got 73 seats. (A pair of East Malaysian coalitions earned 28 of the 35 remaining seats.)

A coalition needs 112 seats — a simple majority — to form a government. None of them have it on their own. Pakatan Harapan’s leader, Anwar Ibrahim, has said his group has enough support from other coalitions to get there but did not say whom he was teaming up with. Muhyiddin Yassin, a former prime minister in charge of Perikatan Nasional, said his group was ready to welcome any party that was ready to embrace its “principles.”

The coalition leaders must now convince the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, that they have the best path forward. Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy, and the king must formally swear in the next prime minister.

Experts said that a government could form by the end of Sunday.

In this election, “the role of the monarch is crucial,” said Aira Azhari, an analyst at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysian think tank. “Representatives from all these coalitions are going to go to him and say ‘We have the numbers’ — and he will have to say, ‘OK, prove it.’”

If Pakatan Harapan, (whose name means “Alliance of Hope”) is able to form the next government, it would culminate a comeback for Mr. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who has had two stints in prison that he says were the result of politically motivated prosecutions.

But it was the strong showing by Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) that political analysts found most stunning. The coalition is more conservative than Barisan Nasional (National Front) and includes an Islamist political party that picked up more than 40 seats on Saturday. The party’s emergence as a major power broker, experts said, indicated the electorate has become more polarized and that many voters, including some young first-time voters, have moved to the right.

The Islamist party, known as PAS, has in the past called for theocratic Islamic rule in Malaysia. It started small but in recent years has become a national force by making alliances with other parties and pushing its pro-Muslim Malay policies.

Amid the uncertainty, one thing was clear: Voters had once again rebuked the United National Malay Organization, the party leading the incumbent coalition of Barisan Nasional. Before Saturday, UMNO’s only other loss had been in 2018.

UMNO had led Malaysia since it won independence from Britain in 1957 until 2018, when voters booted it out of power after an international corruption scandal. The party’s former leader, Najib Razak, who was prime minister for almost a decade, is now serving a 12-year sentence in prison for crimes connected to the looting of $4.5 billion from a government fund.

In the four years since Mr. Najib was voted out of office in 2018, there has been rapid turnover at the prime minister’s office. Mahathir Mohamad, a nonagenarian who had previously served as prime minister for more than two decades, replaced Mr. Najib. After his government collapsed, the king appointed Mr. Muhyiddin as prime minister without an election, but he departed following his botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic. That cleared the way for the incumbent prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, an ally of Mr. Najib and a member of UMNO.

Saturday’s contest was the first time that Malaysians between the ages of 18 and 20 could vote, after the government lowered the minimum voting age in 2019. The change came in conjunction with a measure that created automatic voter registration. Together, these steps added more than 5 million new voters to the rolls, making about 21 million Malaysians eligible to cast ballots overall.

The election commission said that as of 4 p.m. Saturday, a record number of voters, more than 14 million, had turned out.

In interviews, young voters said that the economy and government corruption were among their top concerns. Most said they would vote for candidates who were a part of Pakatan Harapan, which they identified as the coalition pushing for change and racial equality.

“I understand why some people are really apathetic,” said Seth Naidu, a 22-year-old recruiter, who cast his ballot for Pakatan Harapan. “But then it falls onto us, people of the new generation, people who are first-time voters, to do something about it.”

One change that voters delivered involved Mr. Mahathir, 97, who had led UMNO for decades before switching to the opposition to defeat Mr. Najib. Known for an autocratic streak as he transformed Malaysia from an agrarian nation into a modern economy, Mr. Mahathir was running again for his parliamentary seat and fielding a small coalition.

But for the first time, he lost re-election.

“We saw the forced retirement of Mahathir,” Professor Chin said of Saturday’s results. “People just want him and his brand of politics to disappear.”

Mr. Mahathir’s administration had successfully filed charges against Mr. Najib, but UNMO remains enmeshed in claims of graft. The current party president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, was recently cleared of some — but not all — of his own corruption charges. Some experts had speculated that a win for the party would have allowed Mr. Najib and Mr. Zahid to put their legal troubles behind them.

For some voters, the scandals were too much to ignore.

Sherilyn Ooi Su Ying, 32, a product manager who voted overseas in Berlin earlier this month, said that she was not enthralled by any of the parties or candidates for prime minister. Still, she said that she voted for Pakatan Harapan, “because I think there’s just too much corruption on the other side.”

“Our country could do so much better,” she said, “if we had just a clean government.”

Liani MK contributed reporting from Penang, Malaysia.



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