The Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) has parted ways with Pakatan Harapan to contest the upcoming state elections. Although some have written the youth-focused party off, there might yet be method to its madness.
Malaysia is gearing up for state government elections, which have been slated for 12 August. While Anwar Ibrahim’s parliamentary majority is not directly at play, analysts have framed the polls as a referendum on his administration. Yet, rather than taking potshots at the opposition coalition Perikatan Nasional (PN), Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) is arguing with its erstwhile ally, the youth-focussed Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA).
Despite cooperating with PH in the Johor state elections and the general election in 2022, MUDA’s president, Muar MP Syed Saddiq recently announced that his party would contest the upcoming state elections under its own logo. According to Saddiq, MUDA has been ghosted by Anwar and other leaders. Indeed, PH Secretary-General Saifuddin Nasution said in March he had been “too busy” to assess the party’s application to join the coalition. Beyond chafing at this treatment, Saddiq charged the coalition’s leaders with making little progress on campaign promises such as term limits for the office of the prime minister, anti-corruption and reform of government-linked companies.
MUDA’s decision has drawn a range of reactions. Pundits have posited that the party’s scarce resources are a recipe for electoral demise. Given the party’s membership and target audience, political veterans have stated that the party’s horses need to be held in check. Others have charged that MUDA has underperformed amongst younger voters and, consequently, needs to be modest. Sinister minds have pinpointed Saddiq’s ties to Mahathir — who had appointed him as minister for youth, culture, and sports in 2018 — as evidence of another Machiavellian manoeuvre by the maverick to mess with Anwar’s mojo.
PH’s priorities clearly lie elsewhere. As the two peninsula-based coalitions in the Unity Government, PH and Barisan Nasional (BN) are currently negotiating who will compete where. Given UMNO’s parlous performance in 2018 and the custom that incumbents are given priority to contest in their seats, the talks are already arduous. Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) will likely have to concede seats to UMNO, making them loathe to yield yet more to MUDA.
PH stalwarts further argue that their component parties already have youth wings, where the hopes and energy of those younger in years can be parked. Still others point to the personalistic nature of MUDA’s brand, which largely focuses on Saddiq. The party’s emphasis on youth also does not mesh well with Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system which rewards targeting more generalised markers of identity such as urbanisation status or ethnicity. Last, evidence from Saddiq’s own constituency shows mixed results: he did best among non-Malay youth, and lost ground to PAS among young Malay voters.
Consequently, this solo foray into the political blue ocean may be short-lived. But, before writing MUDA off, there may be method to its madness.
First, it cannot be denied that MUDA has a cachet all of its own. The telegenic Saddiq is very media-savvy and has no less than 1.9 million followers on Instagram alone. PH’s decision to work with MUDA last year prompted UMNO to scour its talent pool to find articulate professional candidates to field in urban seats. And, the party’s decision to go it alone solicited comments from Lim Kit Siang and Mahathir, two veterans from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
While the divorce makes sense for both ex-partners, MUDA and Pakatan Harapan may yet cooperate again after the elections. In Malaysia’s new, more competitive political panorama, parties and coalitions increasingly contest elections independently before forging post-election compromises.
Second, for a party premised on popular participation and innovation, MUDA can ill-afford to wait in the interstices indefinitely. The only way to broaden the party’s image beyond Saddiq is for MUDA to field more candidates and have them accumulate their own track records. To be fair, the party is associated with consistent stances on issues such as Undi-18, anti-corruption, and term limits for office holders. Last, those accusing MUDA of personality politics can be accused of letting their gaze stray past the mirror.
Third, MUDA’s recent electoral performance is on par with PH component parties. Its subordinate position in seat negotiations meant it was fielded in challenging seats. For example, its seven seats in the Johor election included UMNO bastions such as Parit Raja and Machap. Indeed, MUDA’s win in the mixed Puteri Wangsa seat was by a handsome 7,000 majority. Syed Saddiq’s narrow victory in Muar in November 2022 was also no mean feat, given the intense competition from a senior Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) cleric on the one hand and a youth-friendly UMNO candidate on the other.
Campaigning for the upcoming elections has yet to begin and MUDA can now pick seats at its leisure. Freed from PH, it may be able to leverage its social-media capabilities and craft a compelling campaign narrative. In line with its “third force” label, it would do well to pick a manageable selection of seats from both PH and PN strongholds. While the party will find a better reception in Selangor and Negri Sembilan, it also needs to venture into seats in states like Kedah and Terengganu. Focussing only on urban and mixed seats would undercut its narrative of seeking to be a national youth-focused party.
While the divorce makes sense for both ex-partners, MUDA and Pakatan Harapan may yet cooperate again after the elections. In Malaysia’s new, more competitive political panorama, parties and coalitions increasingly contest elections independently before forging post-election compromises. Given their more compatible worldviews, a subsequent reconciliation is possible. And, in an era where narrow majorities in Parliament and state assemblies are increasingly frequent, the upstart party may yet be a king-maker.
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.