The Malaysian Political Game: Where Are We?
Anwar Ibrahim, an icon of Malaysia’s democratic movement of the late 1990s, declared on September 23 that he has the parliamentary majority needed to peacefully take power. The announcement has been greeted with skepticism. The 73-year-old politician said the same thing in 2008, 2013, and earlier this year, but in the end those prophecies never materialized. For the past four years, Malaysian politics has been through tectonic shifts. Leaders from all sides of the political spectrum have presented reform agendas, but real democratization has yet to come. So, what has really changed?
Malaysia is a parliamentarian monarchy and federation of 14 states. It is home to a diverse population of over 30 million, with a Malay majority and Chinese, Indian, and Indigenous minorities. Since independence, the country has oscillated between authoritarianism and mere illiberalism. Successive governments have hijacked democratic institutions for their own political agenda. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was in power for 61 years until a major political change in 2018 when the party, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, lost the general elections. For many, Malaysia became a beacon of democratic hope in the region until the power struggle that erupted this February.
In 2016, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned from UMNO; created a new party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or the Malaysian United Indigenous Party; and reconciled with his former enemy and democratic icon Anwar, who had been in jail since 2015. Together, they created the coalition Pact of Hope (Pakatan Harapan, or PH) and embarked on an epic fight to topple Najib, who was embroiled in the largest financial scandal in the country’s history. Mahathir took leadership of the opposition—the same people he had repressed when in office—and promised to release Anwar and hand over power to him within a few years if he won. At 92, Mahathir managed to rewrite his autocratic legacy with a new messianic narrative: only he could save Malaysia from the “evil” and “kleptocratic rule” of Najib.
The Mahathir-led PH won the 2018 general elections, ending six decades of UMNO political monopoly. He kept his promise to release Anwar but never transferred power. In February 2020, the messianic narrative reached its limits: Anwar demanded power, Mahathir resigned, the PH coalition split, and the government fell. In a fantastic power game, a faction of Mahathir’s Bersatu party helped form a governing coalition with UMNO and other parties, taking power without an election in March.
The new prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, is in a difficult position. Soon after his nomination in March 2020, Muhyiddin took over Bersatu and expelled its chairman Mahathir. Bersatu is now fractured between those supporting its founder Mahathir—most of which have left the party—and Muhyiddin. It cannot match the machinery and influence of UMNO. The Covid-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has offered Muhyiddin an opportunity to defer promised democratic reforms. Muhyiddin is squeezed between a divided opposition (led by Mahathir and Anwar) and the pressure of his more powerful allies in government: UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). He lacks a clear majority in Parliament or strong support in his own government, and so he does not have the clout needed to push for reforms. Muhyiddin’s own political agenda also remains unclear as his government has focused solely on immediate responses to the pandemic. In the aftermath of the public health crisis, when the economic recession hits all layers of Malaysian society more deeply, these tensions could precipitate the dissolution of Parliament and an early election.
Its success in recent polls in Sabah state is another factor that could convince the government to call early general elections, which are currently not required until 2023. The state was run by Shafie Apdal and his Warisan party, which is allied with Mahathir and the opposition. Sabah underwent a major political crisis after Mahathir’s fall from power, forcing Shafie to dissolve the State Assembly. In the September 26 state elections, Warisan lost its majority to an alliance of the Bersatu-UMNO-PAS governing coalition and various local parties. The government-led coalition’s machinery proved stronger in a political battle that was widely seen as an indicator of how a general election might go. Dissent within the opposition coalition did not serve Warisan well despite its relative success in managing state affairs and the Covid-19 pandemic. Just a few days before the polls, Anwar made his announcement of enough support in Parliament to unseat Muhyiddin. The unproven claim added even more uncertainty and confusion for voters.
While many foreign observers have put their faith in Anwar’s reformist vision for Malaysia, his movement has lost favor with the country’s democratic elite. Anwar founded the democratic movement Reformasi in 1998 and was oppressed and jailed under both Mahathir and Najib. Since his released in May 2018, his aura has suffered because of the intrigue and rivalry of his fragile alliance with Mahathir. Today, his People’s Justice Party (PKR) struggles to mobilize votes in the more conservative parts of Malaysian society because of its alliance with the ethnic Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP). This benefits Bersatu and UMNO. The coalition led by Anwar suffered a major setback with the departure of Bersatu to join UMNO in February, and because of internal rivalries within PKR itself.
Mahathir, meanwhile, has launched a new Homeland Fighters’ Party, or Pejuang. He aims to build an alternative to the PKR-led opposition movement. So far, the new party’s popular appeal is difficult to measure. But Mahathir’s resilience poses a major threat to Anwar’s planned accession to power. And Malaysia’s hope for democracy seems to have vanished since the collapse of the Mahathir government. Today, people are seeking immediate economic benefits and stability rather than long-term democratic reforms. With this in mind, voters are turning back to the “new old and old new”: UMNO and its allies.
While Muhyiddin, Mahathir, and Anwar’s political destinies are uncertain, one man is still, extraordinarily, standing: Najib Razak. Najib is of noble descent and comes from a long line of politicians: his father Tun Razak was Malaysia’s second prime minister, his uncle Hussein Onn was its third, and his cousin Hishammuddin Hussein occupied several ministerial posts. Despite facing multiple charges of corruption and abuse of power, and a pending 12-year jail sentence that he has appealed, Najib’s popularity is steady. Bossku, or “my boss,” as his supporters have renamed him, has been campaigning actively for UMNO in all by-elections since 2018, including the recent one in Sabah. He has slowly taken over the messianic narrative that Mahathir previously used against him, arguing that only he can save the Malaysian economy. Najib is now successfully reinventing himself as a “man of the people” and pledging “political transparency.”
The recent Sabah election results have comforted the ruling coalition. The timing seems favorable for an early election and the renewal of the government’s mandate, although Muhyiddin could lose the premiership as UMNO wants the country’s top post back. The coming months will be crucial to determine who the next candidates will be in Malaysia’s political game. Nothing is out of the question, as the past few years have shown.
Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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