Malaysia Goes to the Polls on May 9

Q1: Who is running?

A1: On May 9, Malaysia will hold its 14th general election since independence, commonly referred to as GE14. 222 seats in parliament will be contested, as well as 505 state seats. The party or coalition of parties that control a majority of seats in parliament can form a government.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, which leads the Barisan Nasional (BN or National Front) coalition, has been prime minister since 2008 and is seeking a third term. UMNO has ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since independence.

Najib is primarily competing against Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), a highly disparate collection of opposition parties. The head of the coalition is 92-year-old, former UMNO prime minister Mahathir Mohammed, who served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and was Najib’s mentor before becoming his rival. Mahathir is aligned with Anwar Ibrahim, another former UMNO cadre who has led the opposition in recent years. Anwar was also formerly Mahathir’s deputy prime minister until he was sacked and jailed on charges of sodomy. Pakatan Harapan also includes a liberal, ethnic-Chinese party and an Islamic party. The conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), formerly a part of the precursor to Pakatan Harapan, will also run candidates across the country.

Q2: What is the election about?

A2: Ultimately, the election will be a referendum on Najib and will be defined by the sectarian divisions in Malaysian society. Five years removed from GE13, when Najib campaigned on a united “1Malaysia” platform, he is now appealing directly to ethnic Malay voters, contending that his reelection is necessary for continuing preferential policies for Malays and for protecting the dominant role of Islam in Malaysia.

Beyond leadership and personalities, domestic economic issues are also a major consideration for voters, in particular the rising cost of living and the future of a recently implemented goods and services tax. While Najib’s involvement in a major corruption scandal involving the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund remains a salient issue for the opposition, public outrage appears to have crested, with supporters of the prime minister unlikely to switch their allegiance at this point over the issue.

The most salient foreign policy issue for GE14 is Malaysia’s ties with China. Najib’s government has forged stronger ties with China to attract investment and to manage the financial fallout of the 1MDB scandal. The opposition has seized on this issue, saying the country gains little from China’s investment in the country, and vows to place Chinese investment under greater scrutiny.

Q3: Who’s going to win?

A3: Najib and BN are widely expected to win a majority of seats in parliament and thus be able to form the next government. However, BN may win the election without winning the popular vote, helped by a highly gerrymandered electoral map that dramatically skews power toward rural, ethnic-Malay voters. While this has been the case in past elections as well, even more skewed districting was approved on March 28 to further boost BN’s chances. As a result, BN may only need to win a third of all votes to retain power. This would continue a downward trend in popular support for UMNO and BN, having lost the coveted two-thirds majority for the first time in 2008 and losing the popular vote in 2013. In GE13 in 2013, BN won 60 percent of the parliamentary seats despite gaining only 47 percent of the popular vote. Meanwhile the opposition is hoping that the return of Mahathir to the top of their coalition will reduce BN support in traditional UMNO strongholds.

A major hurdle for the opposition is the likelihood that its support will be split, as it will compete against both UMNO and component parties of the ruling coalition as well as its former partner PAS. Typically, “three-cornered” electoral fights have largely benefited the ruling coalition, as opposition support divides between opposition parties.

UMNO is also being accused of using its power over the national election commission to engineer victory. Notably, parliament recently passed an anti-fake-news law to stifle criticism and set the election day on a Wednesday to inhibit urban residents from returning to home districts to vote.

Q4: What are the implications for the United States?

A4: The United States and Malaysia have a positive, constructive relationship across a wide range of issue areas. While the two countries were major trade and investment partners and quiet security partners for decades, the relationship has come into its own under Prime Minister Najib’s leadership since 2009.

Should Najib return to power as expected, U.S.-Malaysia relations will remain positive, although below heights reached in recent years—before the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the U.S. Justice Department launched a criminal investigation related to 1MBD. Despite these challenges, President Trump and Prime Minister Najib appear to enjoy a warm rapport, and the United States and Malaysia continue to work closely on a range of issues, particularly in the area of security cooperation.

An unexpected Pakatan Harapan win that returns Mahathir to power could prove negative for the United States, given Mahathir’s historic antipathy toward the United States, although his recent rhetoric regarding Chinese investment could also spell trouble for Malaysia-China relations. However, the most salient consequence would be a Malaysian government and body politic turned inward to manage a highly complex, historic political transition.

All told, the greatest risk for U.S.-Malaysia relations would be a scenario in which Najib loses but refuses to cede power. In such a case, the Trump administration would be tested with a complex case of how to best balance U.S. interests and values.

Amy Searight is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Brian Harding is a fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

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Brian Harding

Brian Harding

Deputy Director and Fellow, Southeast Asia Program

Amy Searight