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Malaysia’s Polls Usher in a New Political Landscape
UMNO’s long, corrupt reign may be over
By: Murray Hunter
Although Malaysia’s general election has left the country with a hung parliament, voters have delivered trends that will shape the political landscape of the nation including hammering the scandal-scarred United Malays National Organization, whose grip on power could be coming to an end after 65 years of political dominance.
Both Anwar Ibrahim, who senses victory after three decades fighting to become prime minister – sometimes from prison on suspect charges – and Muhyiddin Yassin, who has already served as premier, claimed their respective coalitions had enough support among the 222 seats in parliament to form the government, although they didn’t reveal which parties they had formed alliances with. Negotiations to form a government are continuing.
It is clear, however, that civil servants, the military, Malay professionals, and young Malay voters have dropped UMNO to throw their support behind the ethnic Malay nationalist Perikatan Nasional coalition headed by Muhyiddin Yassin, 68, evidenced by the coalition’s win in the nation’s political capital Putra Jaya.
Political figures who have dominated government for decades have been shown the door including the 97-year-old two-time prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his son Mukhriz, along with Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who has been in Parliament for 46 years, having served as finance minister. Nurul Izzah Anwar. the daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, lost Permatang Puah, a seat held by the family for many years. Khairy Jamaluddin, once regarded as the new face of UMNO, also lost.
None of the three coalitions vying for power appears to command the numbers to form a simple majority, with some form of interdependent politics in order for any government to be formed. That means a period of intense horse-trading is likely to ensue, making Sarawak’s leading Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), which already governs the east Malaysia state, the obvious kingmaker, having won 22 of 31 parliamentary seats, up from 19 in 2018. GPS has already held meetings with both Anwar and Anthony Loke, and separately with Muhyiddin and Abdul Hadi about forming a government.
GPS has two basic choices, with positives and negatives of both. The rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, now the biggest component of Perikatan Nasional, is not welcomed because of their political Islamic policies, and the Democratic Action Party on the PH side is disliked because of what is regarded as Chinese chauvinism.
However, there could be an unexpected coalition cobbled together before any anti-hopping laws take effect to keep opportunistic politicians from changing parties once inside the parliament.
Different parts of the country voted in different ways. Those politicians who didn’t perform well or were considered traitors to their party were severely punished including former Selangor Chief Minister Azmin Ali and Zuraidah Kamaruddin, who played a leading role in the so-called Sheraton Putsch of 2021 which attempted to install a backdoor ethnic Malay nationalist government, and Maszlee Malik who performed very poorly as education minister.
With a turnout of 75 percent, there were no ‘giveaways’ before the results were released about which coalition would benefit. The Barisan Nasional gambled on low turnout in the middle of Malaysia’s monsoon season, while a high turnout was expected to favor the opposition Pakatan Harapan. Instead, the moderate turnout didn’t favor any group, with the youth vote not being the game-changer the opposition had hoped for although it appears to have sunk some of the country’s oldest political figures.
In fact, the opposition Pakatan Harapan’s overall percentage vote declined. The ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), which previously held 47 seats, fell to 40, with the percentage of its vote falling from 19.94 in 2018 to 18 percent. Hardest hit was Anwar Ibrahim’s Party Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which lost 11 seats. Now with 31, the percentage of PKR votes dropped from 18.92 to 14 percent. The third member Amanah lost three seats, winning eight in this election, and UPKO gained one seat, winning two.
The Pakatan Harapan coalition is the largest grouping heading into the new parliament, affording the 75-year-old Anwar his final chance to form a government, not because of its outstanding electoral performance, but rather the split in the vote within the Malay heartlands, the former territory of the Barisan Nasional (BN), led by caretaker Ismail Sabri Yaakob, and Perikatan Nasional (PN), led by former prime minister Muhyiddin. The Barisan had dominated this section of the electoral map ever since independence. PAS had built a foothold, winning 18 seats in 2018, and Bersatu, under the leadership of Mahathir Mohamed in 2018 was able to take 13 seats from UMNO, the dominating member of the BN.
UMNO’s dominance of the Malay heartlands this time around dropped from 54 seats to 20 on the peninsula, with an additional seven won in Sabah. UMNO’s vote fell from 20.9 percent in 2018 to just 12 percent as the party not only continues to be enmeshed in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal and the now-jailed Najib Razak’s disgrace, but is also caught in a leadership squabble between Najib’s lieutenant Abdul Zahid Hamidi, the party president, and Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the xurrent prime minister.
The real winner of the night, as expected over the previous week was Perikatan Nasional (PN). Muhyiddin Yasin’s Parti Bersatu – once a rump party established by Mahathir as a vehicle to lead the reformist Pakatan Harapan in the 2018 election – went from 13 seats to 24, going from 5.95 to 11 percent of the vote. PAS, led by Abdul Hadi Awang, gained a massive 31 seats to a total of 49 in the new parliament. The PAS vote has risen from 16.82 to 22 percent, making it the senior party in the PN coalition and making Abdul Hadi a candidate for prime minster.
The political landscape of Sabah is now clearly divided between 3 groupings. UMNO Sabah has 7 seats, The GRS Sabah has 6 seats, and Warisan has 3, with the remainder held by DAP 2, PKR 1, and Bersatu 1. It looks like Sabah, unlike Sarawak will not rid the state of the influence of peninsula-based political parties.
The state of Perlis experienced a PN electoral tsunami, wiping out the Barisan state government, with all state parliamentarians, including the chief minister Azlan Man, losing their seats. This, after the loss of UMNO MP Shahidan Kassim. Both Pahang and Perak, where state elections were also held, hang in the balance with a probable BN-PN coalition government.
UMNO president Zahid gambled on forcing the nation into an election during the monsoon season. His poor leadership has led to widespread calls for him to resign. If Zahid resigns, he will be open to forthcoming prosecution over allegations of looting a charity, with political protection now gone. Although Zahid just scraped into his seat of Bagan Datuk by fewer than 400 votes, he is now personally open to the full weight of the law.
It appears that ethnic Malays have accepted the political Islam-Malay nationalist approach propagated by PAS and Abdul Hadi. Pakatan made many mistakes in candidate selection. However, this would not have made up the numbers in the final seat tally.
The Malaysian electoral map has clearly changed from voter sentiment displayed in the Johor State election, early this year. There was the absence of Najib, who led the UMNO crusade during the Johor and Melaka campaigns, pouring in vast amounts of money and bringing to bear his organizational skills. In contrast, caretaker prime minister Ismail Sabri stayed in his own electorate to safeguard his own seat of Bera. UMNO party president Zahid did the same. It almost appeared that Khairy Jamaluddin, who was given the unwinnable seat of Sungai Buloh was the unofficial leader of UMNO. This is in contrast to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who made whistlestop tours around the nation by helicopter during the campaign, displaying the old ‘reformasi’ fervor he was famous for.