Spotlight - Malaysia: May 30, 2023

The historic alliance between Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Barisan Nasional (BN) to form government last November has left many voters in both coalitions confused. With no less than six state elections to be held by July (in Kedah, Terengganu, Kelantan, Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan), the ruling coalition is attempting to galvanize its troops to ensure victory. While Penang will most certainly remain in the hands of the Malaysian Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the northern states of Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu will likely stay with the Perikatan Nasional (PN) opposition alliance, PH faces danger in the potential loss of Selangor and/or Negeri Sembilan. Both states border the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya. The seizure of one of these states by PN or an increase in the number of PN seats in their respective state assemblies could be fatal to PH. If the opposition was to take over one or both states, it would be the end of the Anwar’s government.

Muhyiddin Yassin, former prime minister and president of Bersatu party, which leads the PN alliance alongside the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), claimed his coalition will be able to secure 70 to 80 percent of Malay votes. Currently, the main forces in federal parliament are the PN bloc with 74 seats (including Bersatu’s 31 seats and PAS’ 43 seats), and the ruling coalition PH with 82 seats (including the 31 seats held by Prime Minister Anwar’s Keadilan and DAP’s 40 seats). The two Bornean coalitions, Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), are also key players, lending their support to the Anwar government with 6 and 23 seats respectively. Finally, BN holds 30 seats, including the 26 seats held by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

In this context, the two major forces in parliament are the Chinese-based DAP and the Islamist PAS.  Both are perceived as race-based chauvinistic parties with extremist elements on the fringe. The parties are strictly opposed and are frozen in their racial and racist rhetoric built on the memories of the politically orchestrated ethnic riots of May 13, 1969.

Interestingly, although PAS has traditionally been seen as an antagonist to DAP, successful episodes of electoral collaboration between the two have occurred in the past. In the 2009 by-election in Kuala Terengganu, the 10 percent of Chinese voters massively supported PAS, which was then in alliance with Keadilan, in a large Malay-majority constituency that blocked BN from victory. The wave of support for the Islamist party reached such a level that PAS created a “supporters club” for non-Muslims.

Today, it is UMNO, another long-term archenemy of DAP, that wishes for its voters to support candidates from DAP in coming state elections (and vice versa). UMNO and DAP are now allies in the Anwar government, but their ephemeral reconciliation has yet to be approved by their respective constituencies. On May 14, 2023, the ruling alliance organized a “Unity Government” convention in the historic Kuala Lumpur World Trade Centre, the headquarters of UMNO. DAP leaders highlighted the irony of being at the most (in-)famous UMNO convention hall as their ally, while some UMNO leaders warned that DAP’s presence might be a deterrent to UMNO supporters. However, even while leaders attempt to rationalize their political decisions, this alliance, forged against the parties’ nature after the November general election, has created discomfort on both sides. For years, the backbone of both parties’ rhetoric has been hatred of the other. And despite several attempts by the leadership of both parties to explain this marriage of convenience, love has yet to spark between the two.

Since the general election results, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president of UMNO and deputy prime minister, has made drastic moves. The coming state elections will be a litmus test of his leadership after a party purge that saw the dismissal or sanctioning of key leaders, including Khairy Jamaluddin, Noh Omar, Annuar Musa, and Shahidan Kassim. Rumors has it that some of these ousted individuals may join PN before the state elections, which would rock UMNO to its core.

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.