Unruly Malaysian Political Scene Could End in New Polls

With no factions able to form a government, king may call election

By: Murray Hunter and John Berthelsen

It appears increasingly likely in Malaysia’s chaotic political situation that none of the contending forces -- the current prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, his political foe Anwar Ibrahim, or a so-far unknown representative from the opposition Barisan Nasional – will be able to corral enough votes to take control of the parliament and that the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, will call for a snap national election.

The situation could yet change, with the king yielding to the now-shattered ruling coalition importuning him to retain Mahathir as interim premier. If, however, he decrees an election, the Pakatan Harapan coalition that has ruled parliament since a May 2018 national election upset is likely to be demolished, hobbled by defections and growing public impatience at the coalition’s infighting, economic incompetence and inability to run the government.

The king, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, has spent the past two days interviewing the entire parliament in an effort to ascertain who could command the confidence of the majority of MPs, asking two questions -- who is their preferred prime ministerial candidate and whether each believes a general election is the solution.

The country’s politics have been in turmoil since Sunday, when Mahathir suddenly backed away from a racial realignment to fashion permanent ethnic Malay dominance of politics that he had spent months formulating, throwing the situation into total confusion that ended with the ruling coalition’s destruction. Mahathir’s own Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia was forced to drop out of the coalition and several of his lieutenants were exiled from politics, temporarily if not permanently. Mahathir himself submitted his resignation to the king as Anwar, Democratic Action Party leader Lim Guan Eng and others begged him to rescind his action.

The affair has generated a widespread joke in Kuala Lumpur describing the wild several days since the prime minister backed out of a scheme he devised to rearrange the country’s politics along racial lines: "There was a coup attempt in the name of Tun M (Mahathir) against the government of Tun M that was prevented by Tun M through the resignation of Tun M as PM followed by the appointment of Tun M to be interim PM. Meanwhile, everybody else lost their ministerial positions except Tun M."

The United Malays National Organization and its ally the rural Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia or PAS on February 24 dropped their support for Mahathir, gambling that they could win a general election. However, the combined numbers of UMNO-PAS in parliament with the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress is only 60, well short of the 112-member majority needed for government.

UMNO faces a number of defections to Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or Bersatu, which would have bolstered their numbers. It’s most likely that Mahathir will garner a majority of pledged support, which upon the Agong’s ruling would return him as prime minister of a new coalition.

The king and his advisers are attempting to gauge how firm support for Mahathir would be, an extremely important factor, along with what would return political stability. Public sentiment is another factor that could be taken into consideration, although it might not.

Under Section 55 (2) of the Constitution, the Agong has the discretion to call an election, regardless of any advice given to him. A general election would be his call and not outside the bounds of possibility.

Pakatan Harapan would likely face disaster in a general election. That, sources say, is foremost on Mahathir’s mind. He needs the Agong to appoint him prime minister to stay in power while the 94-year-old jockeys to save the situation.

It is improbable, given the current political climate, that he could put together a winning coalition by heading Pakatan Harapan. Past by-elections have been a disaster for Pakatan Harpan, especially the Tanjung Plai constituency in southern Johor, where the Bersatu candidate suffered the worst defeat in the history of Malaysian by-elections, defeated by MCA’s Wee Jeck Seng with a 15,000 vote majority.

If comments over the past few days through both the media and social media are any indication, the electorate is angry with all Pakatan party components except for the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party. There is a strong feeling that Mahathir and Pakatan need to be taught a lesson. It would be very difficult to refocus this anger back at UMNO-PAS and corruption to counter bad sentiment.

According to an Asia Sentinel analysis, a general election under these conditions would conservatively cut the former Pakatan coalition’s representation from the 121 seats they currently hold to around 83 seats. The UMNO-PAS coalition would increase its seats from the current 60 seats to 123 seats, given the corruption-ridden coalition the opportunity to comfortably form the next federal government.

In addition, the Mahathir-led coalition would lose Kedah and Perak at state level along with Melaka and Negri Sembilan as well. The now-defunct Pakatan coalition might narrowly hang onto Selangor and lose 12 seats in the Johor State Assembly. DAP would hold onto Penang without any problems.

Five cabinet ministers, Saifuddin Abdullah, Saifuddin Nausution Ismail, Mohd Redzuan Md Yusof, Baru Bian, and Mujahad Yusof Rawa would be expected to lose their parliamentary seats. Former education minister Maszlee Malik and Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq are also likely to lose their seats. Mahathir would have a real fight on his hands to hold his own constituency on the island of Langkawi. Mahathir’s son Mukhriz in the neighboring Federal seat of Jerlun would also lose his seat, as would Nurul Izzah if she recontests her seat in Pamantang Puah.

All but one of the UMNO defectors to Bersatu, Mustapha Mohamed would lose their seats and end their political careers. Bersatu would be decimated to only three seats in the new parliament, Amanah would carry five seats, and Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat would be left with 35. The DAP would be expected to only lose one seat.

This result would be worse if the trends shown in the last few by-elections are any indication of the mood of the electorate. For example, a 5 percent drop in voter turnout of Malays who supported Pakatan last general election would result in the loss of even more seats. A 10-20 percent drop in non-Malay turnout in mixed electorates would lose the old Pakatan another 10-20 seats.

Based on the above, DAP would be left with 41 seats and PKR with 35 forming the opposition with a handful of Amanah MPs. Mahathir’s Bersatu would become just a minor party, losing the outsize influence it once had over the nation’s political agenda.

The Mahathir era would be finished with little legacy to show. An UMNO-PAS win would condone both corruption and Malay supremacy politics. The UMNO-PAS prime ministerial candidate is still unknown, but there is a likelihood that former prime minister Najib Razak, currently on trial for his role in the massive 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, the biggest financial scandal in the country’s history, could return to the head of the party to lead the campaign. Many things are at stake today in Malaysian politics which will shape the nation for years to come.