Spotlight - Malaysia: August 16, 2023

Malaysia’s state elections, held in six states on August 12, followed an uneventful campaign and led to little change to the status quo. The three northern states of Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu were retained by the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, which won 33 out of 36 seats, 43 out of 45 seats, and 32 out of 32 seats, respectively. The Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition managed to hold Penang, Negeri Sembilan, and Selangor from the “green wave,” the growing popularity of the PN opposition coalition, which includes Bersatu and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

The PH-BN coalition successfully won two-thirds majorities in the Negeri Sembilan and Penang state assemblies, where it retained 31 out of 36 seats and 29 out of 40 seats, respectively. However, PN snatched Permatang Pauh in Penang, the iconic seat held by the Anwar political dynasty since 1999 and occupied successively by Anwar himself, his wife Wan Azizah, and his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar.

All eyes are on Selangor, the richest state in the country and a PH stronghold. The PH-BN coalition failed to retain a two-thirds majority, winning only 34 out of 56 seats. Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat won only 12 out of its 20 contested seats. Its vote share is almost equal to its PH counterpart, the Democratic Action Party (DAP). The Chinese-based party won 15 of its 15 contested seats. Amanah, the moderate Islamist component of PH, won 5 seats, while the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) only secured 2 out of the 12 seats it ran in. However, BN’s vote share remains higher than Amanah’s due to gerrymandering (9.2 percent vs 7.9 percent). In the same state, Bersatu won 12 of the 31 seats it contested and snatched 21.3 percent of the votes, a share almost equivalent to the two frontrunners DAP and Keadilan. PAS took 10 of the 17 seats it contested and gained a 13.8 percent vote share, a number largely superior to UMNO.

While Keadilan’s performance in Selangor looks worrying, given its loss of 9 seats compared to 2018, its popularity in the state is rather stable. The party won 15 seats in 2008 and 14 in 2013. In 2018, Keadilan’s larger number of victories were due to its alliance with Bersatu. Naturally, these seats went back to Bersatu, now a leading party in the opposition. However, these results indicate that the prime minister’s party has failed to attract further support after 9 months in power.

It remains clear that UMNO has failed at its mission: appealing to and retaining Malay voters. A large section of UMNO’s supporters have deserted the party in favor of Bersatu and its conservative ally PAS. The inroads made by PN are perceived as an expression of discontent from PH and BN’s respective bases in the face of the controversial alliance between the democratic parties’ alliance (PH) and its former foe, the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional alliance. Decades of race- and religious-based political attacks between the Chinese-based DAP, a major component of PH, and the pro-Malay and former ruling party UMNO have not faded away. Voters on both sides are confused, and the persistence of economic inequalities have added to the race-based and scapegoating rhetoric of the PN opposition. This ultimately fuels the continuance of racial division and triggers fears of political instability and populist extremism across the political spectrum.

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.