Malaysian politics is now a three-legged race

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Author: Francis E Hutchinson, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

Long characterized by “stability” and an excessive concentration of power, Malaysian politics has become fluid and unpredictable. With elite pacts and deals struck behind closed doors, the country now has public twists worthy of a Netflix series.

Until 2018, Malaysia was ruled by the Barisan Nasional (BN), a multi-ethnic coalition led by the United Malay National Organization (UMNO). That year, a perfect storm of discontent swept through the ruling coalition as anger over then-Prime Minister Najib Razak’s financial misdeeds, the phasing out of key subsidies and the imposition of a tax on goods and services reached a crescendo. Splits within the Malay elite, along with three-way contests between the BN and the Malaysian Islamic Party, allowed the Pakatan Harapan coalition to expand into the rural heartland of Peninsular Malaysia for the first time.

Malaysia’s political institutions have since been in flux. After 22 months in power, Pakatan Harapan was ousted as two groups of MPs crossed the floor and formed an alliance with BN and the Malaysian Islamic Party. Pakatan Harapan’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was replaced by Muhyiddin Yassin as head of the new government coalition, Perikatan Nasional, in March 2020.

An internal power struggle within this coalition ensued, between Muhyiddin’s party, Bersatu, and UMNO, which eroded its legitimacy. Following a rebuke from the king, Muhyiddin gave way to the current prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob in August 2021. In a country where long prime ministerial terms have been the norm, this level of unpredictability from political leaders is unprecedented.

UMNO is determined to return to what it sees as its rightful position at the pinnacle of national power. After two years in the political wilderness following its defeat in 2018, the party has been vying for a secondary position in Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional administration. Over the following months, UMNO President Zahid Hamidi and Najib Razak lobbied for more power to be given to their party. This was achieved in August 2021, as Ismail Sabri and other party members were rewarded with the choice office positions.

UMNO resents being in a larger coalition where it is not the undisputed leader. Top leaders are pushing for a snap election – arguing the country wants political stability on the frequent changes of direction. Despite the dramatic defeat that left Najib and UMNO’s reputation in tatters, the big old party is selling its old formula – Malay rule and traditional patronage politics. Although completely lost in 2018, UMNO has not undergone any internal reform. Najib even took advantage of a renewed popularity.

Yet a significant group of UMNO’s leadership faces legal action for bribery, money laundering and criminal breach of trust. Launched at the very beginning of the Pakatan Harapan administration, these processes are progressing through the judicial system.

For some, including Najib, the first of them is nearing its final outcome, and Zahid’s legal setbacks are piling up. The exposure of evidence in the process meant that Zahid, Najib and other leaders were barred from ministerial posts.

Yet this clique retains a formidable degree of control over the UMNO party apparatus. The measures adopted by Tunku Abdul Rahman and Mahathir during their terms as party leaders mean that the UMNO chairman wields outsized power, including over the selection of candidates for parliamentary and state assemblies. By opting for early elections, they hope that a solid majority will melt away their legal troubles.

The problem for UMNO’s ‘old guard’ is that while the prime minister’s post is held by one of their own, Ismail Sabri has his own interests at stake. He enjoys good relations with key leaders of Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition, but Mohamad Hasan, the vice-president of UMNO, could take his place.

What is the probability that the BN will come to power if general elections were to be held soon? The state election results in Melaka and Johor (in October 2021 and February 2022) provide some insight into this issue. UMNO did very well on both counts regaining most of the seats lost in 2018, with BN receiving roughly the same number of votes as in 2018. Although there was little enthusiasm for BN, the result shows the strength of the electoral mechanism of the coalition. to mobilize people to vote.

There is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Pakatan Harapan. Corruption problems associated with the elections that year were replaced by an escalation cost of living concerns. Coalition leaders are no longer fresh and voters have memories of unfulfilled campaign commitments. Without a compelling message, many voters simply stay at home.

Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional proved credible in the Melaka and Johor elections, winning almost a quarter of the vote. Perikatan Nasional has traction among urban Malaysians in key seats who are not attracted to Pakatan Harapan but are susceptible to perceived financial misdeeds by BN. Yet this performance only translated into a handful of seats won through Malaysia’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

Rather than a dynamic duel between two coalitions, Malaysian politics now has three contending groups. All three coalitions are led by well-known faces that offer little in the way of innovation or reform. Its experience and resources make BN the best placed of the three.

Barring unexpected developments, BN seems ready to return to power on its own – without reform and without repentance.

Francis E Hutchinson is Senior Researcher and Coordinator of the Malaysian Studies Program at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

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