Spotlight - Malaysia: July 19, 2023

Malaysian state elections in Penang, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Selangor, and Negeri Sembilan will be held on August 12, 2023. A total of 245 seats will be contested by 9.77 million eligible voters, of which a little over 50 percent are women. Among eligible voters, 28.9 percent are between the ages of 18-29 years old, and 51.1 percent are aged 18-39. The highest numbers of young voters are in Selangor, Kedah, and Kelantan.

While the election outcomes will not directly cause a change in government, the optics of inroads made by the opposition in territories traditionally held by Pakatan Harapan (PH) would further challenge the ruling coalition. The alliance between PH and Barisan Nasional (BN) to form government in November 2022 has revealed itself to be a fragile formula. And the resistance of United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) supporters to reconcile with the fact that their long-term enemy, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), is now their coalition partner is at the source of disbelief and frustration about the nature of this alliance. The cohesion of the PH election machine is rendered extremely complex by the abyssal differences of political cultures and electoral practices that exist between the two coalitions.

While the campaign will only officially start on July 29, attacks have launched across the political spectrum. Anwar’s attempts to promote his economic policies and to legitimize his “principled” UMNO partner seem unconvincing to the Malay heartlands. The opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN), which is led by Bersatu and includes Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), continues to fire at Anwar’s alleged homosexuality. While the prime minister is not directly affected by the opposition’s bad faith attacks, the LGBTQI+ community is collateral damage of this political game and suffers from increased social and legal prejudice. PN appeals to the Malay majority though its Malay-ethnocentrism, annihilating all chances for non-Malays to consider supporting one of its member parties. PN’s recent alliance with former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has added fuel to an already ultra-Malay discourse, intensifying narratives on the victimization of the Malay majority and teasing the fire of ethno-religious divisions.

While the northern states are expected to remain with the opposition, the challenge for PH will be to minimize opposition gains in its strongholds of Penang and Selangor. Meanwhile, Negeri Sembilan’s unique matriarchal lineage system might be the best rampart against what has been described as “the green wave” of support for the Islamist PAS. To Khairy Jamaluddin, the UMNO superstar turned radio DJ now courted by the PN opposition  for his political weight, the “green wave” is instead a tsunami of discontent over a lack of economic direction.

Recent charges held against Kedah chief minister and opposition leader Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor for a political speech are seen as a desperate attempt to silence a popular PN leader. On July 18, Sanusi was charged on two counts of sedition for his statements criticizing the government’s attempts to legitimize the PH-UMNO “unity” alliance, labeling it as the king’s choice. Former law minister Zaid Ibrahim, former Bar Council president and founder of electoral watchdog Bersih Ambiga Sreenevasan, and several NGOs, including Lawyers for Liberty, are challenging Anwar’s past promises to never use against his opponents the draconian laws previously used against him, including the sedition law. This political move will certainly cost Anwar more animosity from Malay voters who, despite the depth of their cultural reverence for the king, will only throw more support to Sanusi, now a political “martyr.”

In the light of these elections, the Anwar government’s reforms have stuttered, and while promising announcements have been made, they have yet to translate into effective policies. These elections are a plebiscite for Anwar’s controversial mandate, and their outcomes could set a new tone in Malaysian politics for years to come.

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.