Political Coalitions in Malaysia: Fluid, Fleeting and Fickle
Despite being part of the same coalition as the United Malays National Organisation at the national level, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia is contesting against the grand old party in the upcoming state elections in Malacca. This might well reflect a new normal in the country’s politics.
Last week, more than an eyebrow or two was raised when Hadi Awang, the President of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), decided not to contest the upcoming Malacca state election alongside its formal alliance partner, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Instead, the party will run with former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), under another coalition, Perikatan Nasional (PN).
This has led some to question the Islamist party’s strategic capabilities, in particular its penchant for drifting into, and out of, various coalitions. Back in 2019, PAS formed a political coalition, Muafakat Nasional (MN), with UMNO to promote Malay and Muslim issues. Forged in the wake of Pakatan Harapan’s (PH’s) victory in the 2018 general election, MN was aimed squarely at winning over peninsular Malaysia’s 117 Malay-majority parliamentary constituencies. Following PH’s fall from power in 2020, the Islamist party has been a component of, first the Muhyiddin Yassin, and then the Ismail Sabri administrations. Thanks to PAS’s support for UMNO’s Ismail Sabri in August this year, the Islamist party was able to secure the highly-coveted Religious Affairs portfolio for the first time in the country’s history.
What’s more, Malacca is an UMNO stronghold. In 2018, which was UMNO and Barisan Nasional’s (BN’s) worst showing ever, Malaysia’s grand old party won 13 seats single-handedly — only two short of a majority in the state assembly. The burning issues of that year — the 1MDB scandal and the imposition of the General Sales Tax — have largely subsided. This means that UMNO is likely to secure more seats this time around. In contrast, Malacca has proved to be inhospitable terrain for PAS. Over the past four elections, the Islamic party has fielded dozens of candidates and secured only a single seat, Bukit Baru, in 2013 with a slender 48-vote majority. In 2018, PAS candidates ran in 20 seats and won none. Consequently, many pundits contend that the Islamic party would be better served by hitching on to the MN bandwagon and coasting to success on UMNO’s coattails.
However, long thirsting for national office and keen to break new ground in the Peninsula’s south, PAS’s leadership sees things differently. Indeed, arguably the party has nothing to lose and more than a little leverage to gain with this decision. Given the ruling coalition’s razor thin majority in parliament, any talk of PAS’s contingent of 18 MPs withdrawing its support would unleash gusts of instability and rumours of floor-crossing. Consequently, PAS can comfortably contemplate running against UMNO in Malacca but still enjoy the benefits of cabinet positions in a coalition government dominated by UMNO.
Looking beyond this election, it is far better for PAS to maintain a third player in any arrangement with UMNO — lest it be smothered by the uber-demanding (and formerly dominant) party.
Second, given UMNO’s dominance in Malacca, PAS would assuredly be allocated a nominal number of seats out of its comfort zone. A look where PAS ran in 2018 shows that its best performance was in seats where more than 70 per cent of voters are Malay — incidentally, these were the same seats which UMNO won. And, as seen in its frequently-stalled negotiations with Bersatu, UMNO is a stickler for retaining control over seats it has won in the past.
Also, while many say that three-way contests benefit PH, who is to say that PAS would not also benefit from disenchantment with both UMNO and PH and secure a seat or two this time around? While PAS’s wins in the state have been paltry, it has fielded at least 10 candidates in each election since 2004, with 2018 being its most ambitious gambit yet. Consequently, the party has developed a grass-roots network of consequence as well as a corps of aspiring candidates.
This strategy enables PAS’s new best friend, Bersatu, a little while longer before it goes gently into that good night. This latter party has very little presence on the ground in Malacca, campaigning there for the first time in 2018 and securing but two seats – under the PH banner. Given its bigger membership base and deeper candidate pool, the Islamist party is clearly the dominant partner in the relationship. Looking beyond this election, it is far better for PAS to maintain a third player in any arrangement with UMNO — lest it be smothered by the uber-demanding (and formerly dominant) party.
Last, in the event that UMNO secures a narrow majority or, even better, is just shy of one, and PAS (or Bersatu) is able to contribute a seat or three, all parties would let bygones be bygones in the name of securing power. And, perhaps PAS would be able to wring a position or two in the state cabinet in the process. Thus, from the party’s point of view, what’s not to like about the possibilities of running against UMNO?
Gone are the days of stable coalitions sitting atop unassailable parliamentary majorities that are, in turn, replicated at the state level. In a context where UMNO and BN are divided, parliamentary and state majorities sit on a knife edge, and state elections are starting to run on different schedules. The PAS move might well engender a new normal. Politics in Malaysia has become increasingly fluid and alliances more fickle and fleeting.
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.