An Islamic push deepens Malaysia’s old divisions

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Malaysia’s election did not immediately result in a new government, but it produced an instant winner: political Islam.

The conservative Parti Islam Se-Malaysia party, known as PAS, has slipped out of regional boundaries, claiming the most single-party seats in parliament at the expense of some of the more established pro-Malaysian stalwarts. It’s a push that threatens to deepen existing divisions and open new ones, at a time when the country can ill afford to rattle investors.

Much is still unclear. While Monday’s deadline to form the government was extended by 24 hours, coalitions and parties were still negotiating. Muhyiddin Yassin appears set to return as prime minister leading the Perikatan Nasional coalition that includes PAS, and claims enough support from regional parties and others to control the 222-seat lower house. Pakatan Harapan, reformist and multiracial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, will fight without his sworn enemy Barisan Nasional, the third electoral bloc, which has as its pivot the National Organization of United Malays.

It may well lead to a familiar outcome – Yassin served briefly as prime minister after a 2020 political coup and until August 2021 – but there is no hiding the lasting implications of Saturday’s vote for the identity politics in a country that was supposed to move towards a healthier situation. direction.

A party that has championed harsh sharia law and hasn’t shied away from hate speech in its campaign, PAS won 49 seats – more than double its position after the 2018 election earthquake, when the corruption scandal 1MDB terminated six pro-Malaysians from UMNO. dominance of the decade, and that of his broader BN coalition. He was the clearest victor in the political upheaval that followed.

UMNO, meanwhile, appears to have collapsed. Severely bruised in the last elections, the UMNO-led BN had rebounded, returning to the ruling bloc and succeeding in regional votes, particularly in Johor and Melaka. With its well-oiled electoral machine, veterans were eager to cement the revival, betting voters weary of revolving door politics would return to the familiar. Regardless of the corruption allegations that continue to plague the party, with leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi cleared of several corruption charges in September and former prime minister Najib Razak in jail.

It turns out that Malaysians are more tired of corruption than instability. BN won only 30 seats, 26 of which came from UMNO – much worse than in 2018, as it lost dozens of constituencies.

And the wider, old-school, pro-Malaysian establishment has fared little better. Former leader Mahathir Mohamad, a former statesman in Malaysian politics and a former UMNO man now with a fledgling young party, ran again at 97 but suffered his first election defeat since 1969, losing his electoral deposit. His son (and political heir) collapsed just as painfully.

Of course, the exact implications of the vote will reverberate over time, as the government and the priorities of its components become clear. But some things are already apparent and worth noting.

For one thing, racial and religious politics have rarely been stronger, and Malaysia is considerably more conservative. PAS, a party that attacks those it sees as enemies of Islam and accuses the opposition of being communist, has long held sway in Malaysian politics, but it may now be in a position where it can demanding key government positions – even finance and education, where his views almost certainly do not align with the interests of an open market economy that urgently needs competitive, skilled workers and capital. Political scientist Wong Chin Huat of Sunway University points out that this will drive foreign investors elsewhere, but will also alienate Malaysians from public institutions. It also suggests heightened divisions even within the country’s Malay majority.

With the stock market index nearly a quarter below its April 2018 peak, there is now downside risk – and not just for gambling and alcohol companies.

Second, the increase in the number of young voters has not pushed the electorate towards a more liberal position. Yes, more young people were able to speak out after Malaysia lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and introduced automatic registration. But many didn’t vote at all, perhaps as might be expected given the high levels of apathy and cynicism, and many supported PAS. As James Chin of the University of Tasmania told me, young Malaysians feel the current economic model is not for them and are happy to try an alternative – a lesson with regional implications.

Elections in key states scheduled before next summer will test the resilience of the Islamist surge. The PAS can also moderate to stay in the limelight. Until then, voters can at least be reassured that change is a hallmark of democracy.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Will Malaysia’s young voters use their power? : Clara Ferreira Marques

• Najib’s imprisonment a victory for Malaysia, while it lasts: Daniel Moss

• Malaysia Abuse of migrant workers is a bullet in the foot: Adam Minter

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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