In the lineup for Malaysia’s 15th general elections, Barisan Nasional appears to have an advantage over its rival Pakatan Harapan. To take power, the former can rally allies and partners to its side. The latter must win big on its own.
The suspense of Malaysia’s 15th General Election (GE15) on 19 November stems from three founts. First, Barisan Nasional’s (BN) era of dominance is decidedly over, even if the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) — the key party in the coalition — craves a return to hegemonic power. Second, the electoral landscape is fluid, with an unprecedented three national coalitions, multiple kingmaker scenarios, and six million new voters. Third, a hung parliament, with no party or formal coalition winning a clear majority of seats, is a distinct possibility.
Theoretically, the entity with the most elected parliamentarians will secure the keys to federal power in Putrajaya. The battle will boil down to the major coalitions, especially the heavyweight duo of BN and Pakatan Harapan (PH).
However, their prospects are asymmetric. If BN wins the most seats but falls short of a majority, it can rally established allies or strategic partners to its side. If PH scores the same, can it outduel BN to clear the bar of 112 seats out of Parliament’s total 222? This is unlikely; PH must win big. Perhaps the only secure result is a repeat of GE14, when PH triumphed on its own.
There are three reasons that suggest BN holds an advantage. First, the results of the 2018 general election remain relevant despite the attention to the flux, treachery and instability of Malaysia’s politics since the notorious February 2020 “Sheraton move”, when a number of Members of Parliament defected from the ruling PH coalition and triggered its demise.
At GE14, Pakatan Harapan — with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) in its fold — won 113 out of 222 seats, passing the critical threshold by a whisker. That cleared the path for Sabah party Warisan to honour its election pact with PH. Warisan’s eight parliamentarians buffered the PH government’s majority.
But PH’s capacity to engineer a majority from a minority position by coaxing party realignments — not defections of individual politicians, which are now outlawed — was tested in the wake of Tun Mahathir’s resignation from the premiership in February 2020. PH, despite being the largest bloc with 90 seats, was outflanked. The newly formed Perikatan Nasional, embracing defections from PH, including almost all Bersatu parliamentarians, assembled a broad coalition that seized power. The current milieu may pose new possibilities, but recent history has shown that parties have more readily aligned against PH than for it. Moreover, PH is now estranged from its erstwhile Sabah-based ally Warisan.
Second, BN’s would-be allies have expressed clearer intentions. Conservative Islamist party PAS, while linked with UMNO’s nemesis Bersatu in GE15 campaigning and chronically keeping a testy relationship with UMNO, has left the door open for a post-election pact with UMNO. Although Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) coalition of regional parties officially exited BN in 2018, they have consistently leaned toward BN since.
In short, “anything is possible” reverberates in parties’ headquarters, but PAS and GPS have signalled which king they prefer to make. The prospects look good for PAS’ 17 incumbents and GPS’ 19 to retain, if not increase, their seats. This large BN-friendly bloc will be difficult for PH to surmount — although if PH wins big, perhaps it can muster a fetching bid for GPS.
Third, BN is enjoying forward momentum from emphatic state election victories of the past year in Melaka and Johor. BN also enjoys incumbency advantages. It stewarded Malaysia through post-Covid 19 recovery and presented a generous 2023 Budget three days before Parliament’s dissolution. Both policy planks now serve as a de facto manifesto. Rifts within UMNO have been suppressed as the party cranks up its formidable machinery, albeit with public disgruntlement of some incumbents who have not been selected to defend their seats.
… PH’s chances are not totally nullified if it does not win a clear majority, but its MP count will need to exceed BN’s by a stretch, perhaps with a 40- to 50-seat margin. PH’s chances of winning an outright majority or such massive margins cannot be dismissed, but will require a nationwide momentum shift that is hard to foresee.
Of course, these same factors might provoke anti-BN sentiment, whether in protest at #UndiBanjir (a popular meme satirising the decision to hold an election during flood season), or revulsion at the spectre of a Zahid Hamidi premiership. UMNO President Zahid led the demands to hold this election before the year’s end, at the onset of the monsoon season — and as widely noted, before the conclusion of his corruption trial. Should heavy flooding occur during the campaign period, PH’s decision to defer state elections in Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan will be vindicated. UMNO strives to parry negative vibes about its leadership by presenting the palatable, if pedestrian, Ismail Sabri as its prime ministerial candidate and riding on his Keluarga Malaysia (Malaysian family) brand. It could well be that Ismail Sabri will take the reins and then hand them over to Zahid.
Arguably, PH’s chances are not totally nullified if it does not win a clear majority, but its MP count will need to exceed BN’s by a stretch, perhaps with a 40- to 50-seat margin. PH’s chances of winning an outright majority or such massive margins cannot be dismissed, but will require a nationwide momentum shift that is hard to foresee.
PH and opposition parties will seek to energise their base and entice the six million new registered voters. It holds the upper hand in multi-ethnic politics, anti-corruption efforts and reforms. With only three out of thirteen states holding state government elections concurrently with GE15, the spotlight falls predominantly on national issues. This may benefit PH, given the discontent in various segments toward economic conditions which primarily fall under the federal government’s purview. But as a former government, its repute is also open to attack. The salvoes have commenced, with BN lambasting PH’s 22-month administration and questioning its reformist credentials.
Acutely aware of the realities, PH aims to score up to 100 seats in Peninsular Malaysia. With the balance divided between BN and Perikatan, these targets translate into PH exceeding BN’s electoral tally by 50-60 seats. At GE14, PH won 49 more Peninsula seats than BN.
To achieve this target, PH must wrest constituencies from rivals, especially in Bersatu-held Malay-majority areas. Its candidates are venturing into new and more challenging zones, not least PH chief Anwar Ibrahim who is relocating to contest in Tambun, Perak.
Yes, anything is possible, including Malaysia’s first hung parliament. Every contender wants to win big, but for Pakatan Harapan this is a need, not just a wish.
Lee Hwok-Aun is Senior Fellow of the Regional Economic Studies Programme, and Co-coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.