A close call in Malaysia

Malaysia went to the polls in an early general election on Saturday (see my advance preview here). Like many people, I had assumed the fix was in for the government – the National Front (Barisan Nasional), led by prime minister Ismail Sabri and his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has governed the country for all but three of the last 65 years.

But not so. Instead, the instability that has characterised Malaysia since the fall of the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan) government in early 2020 looks set to continue. Despite the resources of government behind it, the National Front could manage only 22.4% of the vote and 30 of the 222 seats (26 of them with UMNO); down 11.4% and 49 seats on its losing total from 2018.*

The Alliance of Hope, under opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, has again won the largest share of the vote, despite the mid-term defections that cost it government. But with 37.5% (down 8.2%) and 82 seats (down 31) it is well short of a majority.

Most of the remaining seats are shared between three different forces, two of which were running in a single (probably fragile) alliance: the Islamist PAS with 44 seats (up 26) and Bersatu 28 (up 15), combined as the National Alliance (Perikatan Nasional) on 30.4% of the vote. The third is the Sarawak Parties Alliance (GPS), with 22 seats (up three). Another 14 seats have gone to small parties and independents (about half of them allied with the National Front), and two are still undecided.

Bersatu, now led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, is the party that split from UMNO before the 2018 election under Mahathir Mohamad, only to desert the Alliance of Hope two years later. (Mahathir himself later returned to co-operation with Anwar, but to no avail – in a piece of poetic justice he lost his own seat.) PAS also has a history of playing both sides of the fence; either it or Bersatu could give Anwar a majority, but it seems more likely that Muhyiddin will try to return to power with the support of the National Front.

That combination, however, would struggle to reach a majority without the GPS. Its parties have historically supported the National Front and are now indicating a willingness to work with Muhyiddin, but in the unfamiliar environment of multi-party politics their support will probably be for sale to the highest bidder. It’s also worth noting that the GPS’s 22 seats came from just 3.9% of the vote: it benefits from highly concentrated support, as regional parties often do under single-member districts (compare the Scottish Nationalists in Britain).

The eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah, on the island of Borneo, comprise more than half of Malaysia’s area but only about a fifth of its population. Its residents tend to feel neglected in the national conversation and the provision of government services, but the delicately balanced parliament has now given them a big opportunity to have their voices heard.

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* Official results should be here, but I have been unable to get the electoral commission’s website to load so I’m relying on Wikipedia’s figures, which are consistent with media reports.

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UPDATE Tuesday: The BBC report on the prospects for coalition formation is very good. But the headline, “Why isn’t there a government yet?”, is terribly British: in most of the world, waiting three days to find out who’s going to form government would not be even remotely a cause for concern.

FURTHER UPDATE Friday morning: In a surprise move, the National Front refused to support Muhyiddin and Bersatu, and after a round of discussions the king decided that Anwar was the best bet to form a viable government. He has now been sworn in as prime minister. He promises a “national unity government”, but it’s not clear exactly what his majority (if any) will be based on. More news next week!

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