Spotlight - Malaysia: January 19, 2023
Malaysia’s 15th general election did not disappoint and has resulted in a series of unprecedented events. The alliance between Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Barisan Nasional (BN) to form a government and counter the electoral weight of Perikatan Nasional (PN) left many voters and observers in disarray. However, the two coalitions have successfully formed a federal government and United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-led coalition state governments in Pahang and Perak.
UMNO, the former ruling party which held a monopoly over the country’s politics since independence, has been plagued by rivalry between party warlords. Party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi strongly opposed Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the underdog who succeeded PN’s Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister in 2022 after the latter resigned. Zahid’s campaign strategy and the purge against Ismail’s faction led UMNO to the worst electoral results in its history, winning only 26 seats. Facing similar losses in 2008, then-party chief and prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi resigned from his posts, paving the way for Najib Razak to succeed him. Najib was in turn replaced as UMNO president by Zahid after the party’s electoral losses in 2018.
However, rather than resigning, Zahid successfully brought the party back to power in a surprising alliance with Anwar Ibrahim’s PH. The two men have been known for their longstanding friendship. As such, far from losing his position at the head of UMNO, Zahid was brought into government as deputy prime minister; and this despite pending court cases against him, and the virulent anti-corruption campaign led by his new allies in PH. This new political imbroglio is confusing for many, including for UMNO members who have been fed anti-PH and anti-Democratic Action Party (the Malaysian Chinese component party of PH) rhetoric for years.
The highly anticipated UMNO general assembly was held in December. The disunity that has reigned over the party in the post-election debacle is hardening with Zahid reaffirming his dominance over his faction of the Malay party. Speeches by Zahid and his allies during the general assembly focused on pedagogical explanations of the positive outcomes of the new alliance with PH and assurances that the rights of Malays (and their economic advantages) will not be challenged. Although former minister of health and Abdullah’s son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin was contemplating the possibility of challenging Zahid’s position at the next party election (to be held before June), the UMNO president cum deputy prime minister successfully passed a no-contest motion to ensure the continuity of his term.
State assembly elections are to be held in Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and Penang in the next six months. While these elections will not directly impact the government, they will effectively be a plebiscite either for or against the new prime minister. The PH-BN camp is now discussing the format under which their candidates will run against PN. With Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation from coalition leadership, it is now up to Hamzah Zainuddin, former minister of home affairs, to lead the PN coalition in coming electoral fights.
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.