Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has secured some breathing space after the passing of his maiden budget and a successful trip to Beijing. But he has dangerous undercurrents to navigate going into state elections.
Having consolidated his position as Prime Minister with the passing of his maiden budget in Parliament, Anwar Ibrahim now has an added spring in his step following a well-received visit to China. While he failed to secure meetings with top Saudi Arabian leaders on an earlier trip, he delivered in China. In addition to meetings with President Xi Jinping and newly appointed Premier Li Qiang, Anwar secured RM170bn worth of investment deals. In essence, Anwar was able to achieve in a single visit more than Najib Razak, who was much-lauded for upgrading bilateral relations with China.
With some deliverables on the table, Anwar is now less worried about his administration’s viability. He is now focused on governing and crafting a narrative for Malaysia’s place in the world at a time of geopolitical tensions. Anwar has also spent the fasting month of Ramadhan running a busy schedule, breaking fast with different segments of society every night.
Yet, dangerous undercurrents lurk below the calm waters. In a few months, Malaysia will head to a set of state-level elections. Six states are up for grabs — three held by Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition and three held by the Islamic party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which is part of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) opposition coalition. The states concerned — Kedah, Terengganu, Kelantan, Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan — are a cross-section of Malaysia’s diversity. In other words, the results will be representative of what the country thinks — at least in the peninsula.
These elections will lay bare Anwar’s greatest challenge — increasing his coalition’s vote share in the Malay ground. Several analysts have put PH’s Malay vote share during the general elections last year at less than 15 per cent. Going into the state elections at these levels, it will be impossible for Anwar to secure any of the northern states especially, and he will have to keep an eye on his own strongholds, especially Selangor. PN has also borrowed a leaf from Anwar’s playbook while in opposition. Without the need to carry the hard realities of being in government, it is championing populist causes such as pushing for Malaysians to be allowed to make withdrawals from their pension accounts.
Anwar must also navigate these waters with a deadweight tied to his legs in the form of his tainted Deputy Prime Minister and partner in the coalition government, Zahid Hamidi. Zahid is president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the leading party in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. After purging his party of rivals (including the author) and returning unopposed during his party’s internal elections, Zahid has wasted no time, flexing his political muscles by consolidating his position in the party and government.
Zahid has generously doled out senior board-level appointments in statutory bodies and government-linked companies (GLCs) to supporters. He also engineered a takeover of the Melaka state government, sacrificing a politically dispensable Chief Minister and replacing him with an arch loyalist. Zahid has also managed to continue to postpone his corruption trial, which was meant to resume this week. He is trying to convince the public prosecutor to drop the charges altogether. Anwar’s political capital is taking a hit, given Zahid’s controversial reputation and the impression that he is rewarding his supporters and cronies unchecked. Of greater concern to Anwar is if UMNO becomes an electoral liability during the state polls.
Anwar’s UMNO headache is not limited to Zahid. He has to contend with UMNO’s incarcerated eminence grise, Najib Razak. After having failed in his bid to get his case reviewed by Malaysia’s Federal Court, Najib has run out of options. He either has to serve his term in prison or apply for a pardon. Although pardons have been given in the past to convicted politicians, including Anwar, this is by no means assured given the scale and nature of Najib’s crimes.
Anwar’s political capital is taking a hit, given Zahid’s controversial reputation and the impression that he is rewarding his supporters and cronies unchecked. Of greater concern to Anwar is if UMNO becomes an electoral liability during the state polls.
Najib’s supporters, which make up at least half of UMNO’s ruling council, have launched a petition to support his pardon. They have launched an assault on the judiciary by leaking investigation documents against the trial judge that convicted him. Although the Malaysian judiciary has not established any wrongdoing on the part of the judge, Najib’s supporters believe the smear campaign will strengthen his application for a pardon. The fact that they are increasingly agitated may have an impact on Zahid’s hold on the party. In light of this, Zahid has instructed UMNO to formally petition the King for Najib’s pardon. Anwar’s support may well erode if he is unable to defend the judiciary against Najib and UMNO’s attacks.
These undercurrents will impact the state elections. Given the results will not affect his coalition in parliament, a collapse of his administration would not necessarily follow. However, losing Selangor or Negeri Sembilan would be a tremendous setback for Anwar. PN has identified these two states as key battlegrounds. If they capture these two states and sustain the momentum for a couple of years, they would be in a good position to score an outright victory come the next general election.
Luckily for Anwar, things in these two states do not look grim, at least on paper. A quick analysis of the results from the parliamentary elections and transposing them onto corresponding state seats shows an uphill struggle for PN in these two states. These rough calculations show that based on the general election results, PN would bag two state seats in Negeri Sembilan, with the rest going to PH (18) and BN (16). In Selangor, PN would fare slightly better with 12 seats, but this is still short of PH’s 41 seats.
Malaysia’s political landscape has changed significantly since November. But Perikatan Nasional’s chances can be boosted if they secure prominent and popular ‘poster boy/girl’ candidates offered as potential leaders of the states should they win. Furthermore, the political undercurrents currently being felt in Malaysia may gain strength and threaten Anwar’s stability if he and his allies cannot successfully navigate through them.
Khairy Jamaluddin is an Associate Senior Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.. Previously, he served as Minister at Malaysia’s ministries of Youth and Sports, Science and Technology, and Health. He was also the Coordinating Minister for the Covid-19 Immunisation Programme.