Numerous interpretations have been offered for the recent state elections in Malaysia. They may offer some truth, but the results also conform with general expectations for a mid-term election that have little to do with the specifics of Malaysia.
Malaysia’s highly anticipated state elections, held concurrently in six states, have concluded. Anwar Ibrahim’s Unity Government retained the three states it previously held, but lost seats in each of them and was nearly wiped out in the remaining three Malay-dominant states. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), a key component party of the Unity Government, fared particularly poorly, winning only 19 of the 108 seats it contested.
Commentators reacted with bold assessments. A South China Morning Post article called the results a “huge blow” for Anwar, while a headline Malaysiakini article suggested that the election raised questions about the government’s sustainability. Political actors expressed similarly strong views: an UMNO Supreme Council member, for example, called on the party to review its relationship with the Unity Government, while former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin suggested the results were a “clear sign that the people want change”, and thus that Anwar should resign. These and many other reactions saw the electoral results as a clear signal that basic political arrangements need to be reassessed.
In politics, everything matters, and many interpretations of the elections contain some truths. But there is a significant risk of overinterpreting the particularities of these elections as either a clear indictment of the Unity Government’s shortcomings or a call for drastic course corrections. That is because many elements of the elections conform to more general political dynamics that have little to do with the specifics of Malaysia or the Unity Government’s performance. In other words, viewed from a broader comparative perspective that incorporates lessons from competitive democracies around the world, the results are surprisingly unremarkable.
There is a significant risk of overinterpreting the particularities of these elections as either a clear indictment of the Unity Government’s shortcomings or a call for drastic course corrections. That is because many elements of the elections conform to more general political dynamics that have little to do with the specifics of Malaysia or the Unity Government’s performance.
Two areas stand out. The first is that these elections, by occurring concurrently nearly nine months after Malaysia’s fifteenth General Election, resemble so-called “mid-term” elections in presidential systems. While this has no precedent in Malaysia, mid-term elections have been comprehensively studied in other contexts — particularly in the United States — because of their unique dynamics and highly consistent results. Voters typically approach mid-term elections as a referendum on the incumbent national government, particularly as growing political polarisation shifts focus from local issues to national political narratives and cleavages.
Among the most consistent findings in political science is that the party of the national incumbent loses seats in mid-term elections. In the United States, for example, this has held true for all but three mid-term elections over the past one hundred and fifty years, making incumbent losses an almost assured outcome. The same dynamic holds for mid-term state legislature elections in the U.S., where the president’s party consistently loses seats regardless of other factors. Moreover, the size of the seat loss in a mid-term election is typically inversely related to the margin of victory in the preceding national election, meaning the larger the win in the national election, the larger the fall in the mid-term election.
Political scientists have posited several explanations for this dynamic, all of which appear relevant to the Malaysian context, particularly given the political polarisation and explicit framing of the state elections as a referendum on the Unity Government. In the U.S., numerous studies have found that (national level) opposition voters, driven by anger at the government, are more likely to vote than supporters of the national incumbent in mid-term elections. More importantly, there appears to be a consistent “incumbent penalty” that compels voters to change their minds between the national and mid-term elections, and thus switch their vote to the opposition. This is thought to be driven by a combination of inevitable disillusionment with a serving political leader (who underperforms relative to campaign promises) and an innate tendency to seek greater political “balance” in the form of strengthening checks on the incumbent government. Preliminary data on turnout and voting behaviour from Malaysia’s state elections conform to these general expectations. Moreover, the fact that the Unity Government holds a supermajority in Parliament makes the significant seat losses entirely consistent with theoretical expectations, independent of the Unity Government’s actual performance.
A second area stands out as well. Populist leaders have grown in prominence around the world, including in long-established democracies. Malaysia is again no exception. Kedah’s Mentri Besar Sanusi Md Noor became a major figure in recent months by displaying Trump-like abilities to challenge political norms and captivate voter attention. He clearly helped fuel the swing towards PN, especially through young voters. The Unity Government tried but largely failed to stem his rise. Attributing that to weakness, however, is problematic: after all, democratic governments around the world have been vexed by the rise of populist challengers, with none finding effective responses.
These points are not meant to diminish the importance of the elections. They will be scrutinised for strategic implications and will shape post-election narratives. But as those narratives emerge, it should be remembered that a good portion of the results were likely driven by Malaysia now being subject to the generic dynamics and pressures of a reasonably competitive democracy. Given that, there is nothing fundamentally unusual in the results that would make drastic change imperative or inevitable. Ultimately, democratic norms entail not just contestation over power, but also periods in which energies are directed towards governance. If guidance must be drawn from developments in Malaysia, perhaps it is that after five years of unprecedented instability, such a period is in order.
Kai Ostwald is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, and the Director of UBC’s Institute of Asian Research. He is an Associate Senior Fellow of the Malaysia Studies Programme at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.