Spotlight - Malaysia: June 9, 2022

In late May, members of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or Keadilan) led by Anwar Ibrahim elected their new leaders. Keadilan is the first party in Malaysia to have implemented a direct-democratic electoral system for party elections. This round, only 180,000 members voted, while the party counts about 1 million members in total—although party membership figures remain inexact as they fail to trace deceased members or those who have left the party. In other parties like UMNO or Bersatu, only district branch or parliament division delegates are able to elect party leadership. While the Keadilan party president post occupied by Anwar remained unchallenged, all eyes were on the race between Saifuddin Nasution and Rafizi Ramli for deputy president. Both were Anwar companions in the early hours of Reformasi, the movement for democratic reforms founded by Anwar in 1998. Despite his accusations of a rigged system prior to the polls, Rafizi has won; so it is now the Nasution camp that is denouncing the polls’ irregularities.
The Keadilan results are important for the future of the party since it is now Rafizi who is in the best place to take over from Anwar if the latter were to resign, or be asked to resign, from his position. In the context of intense intra-party fights questioning Anwar’s rightful leadership, his ambiguity toward the possibility of an alliance with UMNO, and his many (failed) attempts to overtake the parliament majority, the possibility of Anwar being pushed out is worth consideration. The leader recently discarded the possibility of an electoral alliance with former premier Muhyiddin Yassin and his coalition Perikatan Nasional. Meanwhile, rumors of a possible alliance between Keadilan and current prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob have spread rapidly, even if this remains a remote possibility as Anwar and Ismail do not have much to offer to each other.
Prime Minister Ismail is in a difficult position. Having been chosen by Muhyiddin Yassin, the Bersatu leader, to succeed him as prime minister, Ismail remains in the top leadership of UMNO. Ismail has been torn between his allegiance to his party and the support he needs from Bersatu to remain in power. While the two parties are allied at the government level, UMNO leadership clearly stated months ago that they will not support Bersatu in the next General Election (GE). If UMNO was to remove its support from Bersatu, or Bersatu its support for Prime Minister Ismail, an election would have to be called immediately. Ismail is tiptoeing around declaring the timing of the GE, making contradictory announcements in the past few weeks while his policies remain superficial at best, and even miscalculated. Far from bringing more stability, the change of prime minister in August 2021 has maintained the same level of fluidity seen since the resignation of Mahathir Mohamad in February 2020.
Najib Razak, the former premier embedded in a series of court cases for corruption and abuse of power (the SRC International and 1MDB scandals), is well on his way back to power. Some observers think that if UMNO was to regain the parliament majority, it would help Najib achieve better outcomes in his cases and in his pursuit of a comeback. Malaysia’s next GE is expected to be called before the end of the year, even if polls are not due until May 2023. As it always does a year prior to a GE, Malaysia has entered in a period of intense political maneuvers and negotiations between parties. However, the winning combination of parties will remain unknown for quite a while.

Current affairs and the state of play between parties remain anecdotal as everyday rumors of another electoral marriage of convenience make headlines. In absence of real news and real political decisions, commentary on rumors by observers and the media has itself become news. Malaysia is not immune to the conundrum of social media excitement and immediacy; and citizens are clouded with a wide array of fake news, rumors, and nonsense.   
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.​