On October 4, the state legislative assembly of Melaka in the south of Malaysia was dissolved and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-led government collapsed after four members of the assembly, including two members of UMNO, withdrew their support for the chief minister. Following Malaysia’s 2018 general elections, UMNO served in the opposition after ruling Malaysia for over 61 years. It came back to power in 2020 in alliance with Parti Pribumi Bersatu (Bersatu) led by former prime minister Muyhiddin Yassin.
Ahead of the Melaka state election on November 20, former prime minister Najib Razak, currently embroiled in the 1MDB scandal and convicted on several counts of abuse of power and corruption (a decision his lawyer appealed to higher courts), battled on the campaign ground actively to support his men. The election results confirmed a decisive victory for the party which far exceeded all its expectations, with 21 out of 28 seats for UMNO and its allies in the Barisan Nasional coalition: 18 for UMNO, 2 for the Malaysian Chinese Association, and 1 for the Malaysian Indian Congress.
In 2018, the state was won by the Pakatan Harapan alliance led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. The state assembly collapsed with the resignation of Mahathir in early 2020 and an UMNO leader was appointed as chief minister. In October, the loss of confidence of the four assembly members created a major political crisis and intensified rivalries within UMNO and between UMNO and Bersatu.
Today, the UMNO government is back and stronger. The demographics of Melaka mirror those of the nation; thus, the state election results preview what could unfold if Malaysia’s king were to dissolve the federal parliament to provoke an early general election in the first quarter of 2022. Analysis of voting patterns, turnout, and shares nuance UMNO’s victory as the party benefitted greatly from low turnout and the first past the post voting system which led to intense vote fracturing. The Keadilan party led by the iconic Anwar Ibrahim was wiped out; it faced voter backlash after Anwar decided to accept two defectors into his ranks and allowed them to run for seats.
The narrative of a strong return of UMNO is now ingrained in the minds of all Malaysians. Najib, who is facing a pending sentence, is marching to regain the highest post. Despite his conviction, the 68-year-old leader has successfully maintained his popularity, and is frequently referred to as “bossku” (my boss) by his supporters. In the context of the economic hurdles of the pandemic, Najib, who has a very active social media presence, has appeared as a credible and critical voice against the former Muhyiddin government.
The current prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, nominated in September, is part of Najib’s party faction. In this new dynamic, the courts will face a difficult situation in the continuation of their proceedings in a case that, according to Najib, was orchestrated by Mahathir Mohamad to take power in 2018. It seems things are slowly falling into place for Najib to defy the odds and run as a candidate for prime minister in the next general elections.
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.