Whenever the next Malaysian general elections are held, voters will be in for a bumpier ride as coalition politics lead to more uncertainty about how the next government will shape up.
Recently, four political coalitions in Malaysia — BN (Barisan Nasional), PN (Perikatan Nasional), PH (Pakatan Harapan) and GTA (Gerakan Tanah Air)— held large-scale meetings to prepare for a possible snap election. The next general election (GE) must be held before September 2023 but several quarters within Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaacob’s party, UMNO, insist it must be held soon. Ismail, however, contends that his ruling coalition needs more time. The next GE will likely witness three- and four-cornered fights in many constituencies, with the high likelihood that no single coalition will form the government as a standalone bloc. If no coalition can win the polls outright, the composition of the next government will likely be decided post-GE after serious bargaining among political parties.
Since 2008, Malaysia’s dominant one-coalition system has effectively evolved into a two-coalition party system, with the main opposition parties’ PR (Pakatan Rakyat, or People’s Coalition) eroding BN’s dominance over time. In 2018, PH outdid BN’s winning streak, securing power for the first time. However, the PH government crumbled within two years of its historic victory and was replaced by Muhyiddin Yassin’s PN. Still, the two-coalition system remained intact for several months, since BN was subsumed under PN.
The current Malaysian government is best described as an unwieldy alliance of two coalitions: PN and BN. By August 2021, cracks in the two-coalition system were evident. PN and BN contested against each other in the recent Malacca and Johor state by-elections, despite being in an alliance at the federal level. Prime Minister Ismail Sabri campaigned on behalf of BN and not the PN government, which he leads.
The opposition PH shares some responsibility for keeping the current PN/BN government in power. In parliament, while it checks and criticises Ismail Sabri’s government, it has signed an MoU with the government to support all confidence and supply bills. Although Ismail Sabri only holds a thin two-seat majority in parliament, this MoU should prevent a repeat of how the Muhyiddin government was toppled.
In the upcoming GE, Malaysians will not witness the stability of dominant one-coalition or two-coalition political contests of the past. Voters can expect some political turbulence before the current government hands over power to the next one. Malaysia’s recently passed anti-party hopping laws will not prevent coalition-building fluidity. While individual MPs are not allowed to switch to parties other than what was originally indicated on the ballot sheet, parties can move en bloc between government and opposition. This creates more political turbulence than in the past and more uncertainty as a result.
Some Malaysians are optimistic that the country might be returning to a dominant one-coalition system again, after the Johor and Malacca elections gave BN landslide victories despite multi-cornered fights. But these elections were held before the federal court upheld Najib Razak’s guilty verdict in mid-August 2022. Revelations of new scandals arising from the unfulfilled purchase orders for combat ships and other pending corruption trials could impact UMNO negatively, lowering BN’s chances of a clear election victory. UMNO also needs to unite its rival factions quickly to prevent internal fractures from hobbling the party’s election performance.
The prospect that the next Malaysian government will not be formed on election night is real.
BN’s rivals PN and PH also face the uphill task of capturing power as individual coalitions. PN’s reputation was badly hit by its poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and voters blame it for the suffering caused by lengthy lockdowns. PN is also unable to name an alternative prime minister candidate to Muhyiddin Yassin, who led the coalition in the Malacca and Johor elections where it was badly trounced. The Johor defeat is more embarrassing for Muhyiddin for he was the former chief minister and the “poster boy” for PN.
On the other hand, PH has not been able to offer a strong challenge to BN and PN. It was heavily beaten in the recent Sarawak, Malacca and Johor state elections. The coalition has not been able to find an alternative leader to Anwar Ibrahim. While PH will likely remain popular in the urban constituencies, this is not enough to capture Putrajaya, since in Malaysia’s malapportioned electoral system, rural votes are over-weighted and thus count for more than those in urban areas with higher population densities (also known as mega-constituencies).
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s newly formed coalition GTA is the latest addition to the mix. Comprising his party Pejuang, small Malay-based parties, and NGOs, this coalition seeks to protect the interest of the Malays and other indigenous communities (the original people of the Malay land and sea). Mahathir recently opened coalition partner Berjasa’s congress. GTA’s strategy signals its desire to capture protest votes, targeting voters who are upset with BN and PN but who do not want to vote for the multi-racial PH. GTA will likely target voters in the rural, Malay-majority constituencies.
The prospect that the next Malaysian government will not be formed on election night is real. This uncertainty also means that coalitions will ramp up populist narratives during campaigning, since their approach to the polls is to “capture as many seats first and negotiate later”. Negotiations will be complicated, given the cross-cutting agendas of the four coalitions. Which party gets what cabinet positions and who will get the coveted premiership, and deputy prime minister and minister of finance positions, will decide how coalitions will align.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.