On October 10th Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved parliament and ten days later elections were called for just one month later on November 19th. This opens a new chapter in the Malaysian political crisis that began in 2018. With the General Election the youth is expected to be a decisive force vote and change traditional scenarios. We are witnessing the first Malaysian elections after Covid-19 and without a clear parliamentary majority in the polls.


Para lectores castellanohablantes ver el artículo aquí Elecciones Generales (GE15) de Malasia

Political context

Malaysian politics is linked to national identity, a controversial issue in Malaysia because of the economic, legal, and political differences between the different ethnic groups that coexist in the country. The main ethnic groups are Malays, Chinese and Indians. Although due to Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution, Malays and other indigenous people are given an advantageous policy over other groups and minorities in the country. This was done to correct the injustices they suffered during the colonial era.

Despite the position of the Malays having successfully improved over the past 65 years since its implementation, tensions between the different ethnic groups have also increased, leading to violent riots between them, and demonstrating that the government has failed to achieve a clear and egalitarian sense of national unity. According to the Malaysian government website in 2016 ethnic Malays and indigenous peoples (Bumiputera) accounted for (61.8%); ethnic Chinese (21.4%); Indians (6.4%); other minority groups (0.9%) and non-Malay residents (9.6%) of the population

In a country where inequalities are not encompassed by citizens’ income level will easily fall into the political debate of ethnic quotas, racial disparity, privilege, ethnonationalism, etc. Thus, maintaining a structural problem about the position of citizens vis-à-vis the State as it changes according to their ethnicity and religion.

 

Political CRISIS

The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition of political parties, led by the UMNO, has ruled Malaysia since its independence in 1957 until 2018 and returned with the current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob in 2021. The 2018 general election (GE14) marked a turning point as for the first time in Malaysian history the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won the election and its then leader, Mahathir Mohamad, was sworn in as Prime Minister. Tun Dr Mahathir was in power for 22 months until his resignation in 2020 which was rumoured to be to set up another organisation and run in the next election, specifically the current GE15.

The internal crisis of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) over Mahathir’s succession led to the loss of power and the creation of the Perikatan Nasional (PN), in what is known as the Sheraton Move. This began an ongoing political crisis in the country while the GE15 elections on November 19th are expected to end or begin another chapter in this long saga of events. Anwar Ibrahim, the current Pakatan Harapan (PH) candidate, was due to succeed Mahathir but his near succession in 2020 divided the coalition’s parliamentarians leading to PN’s creation and, in the long term, the return of the Barisan Nasional in 2021.

 

The Candidates

The main political parties or coalitions most likely to win the election race are the Barisan Nasional (BN), Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Perikatan Nasional (PN). This would be the first time since 2018 that the BN could lose its hegemony and there is a possibility that a long-term Pakatan Harapan-led government could be formed.

  • Barisan Nasional (BN) – Candidate: Ismail Sabri Yaakob

Barisan Nasional, led by the UMNO political party, is the longest-ruling political organisation in Malaysia, from the beginning of democracy until 2018 and again in 2021 to the present. Through UMNO’s leadership, the BN has been characterised as representing the Ketuanan Melayu Islam (Supremacy of Malay Islam) ideology, which preaches that non(ethnically)-Malay or non- indigenous groups should not have the same political rights as those who are, i.e. certain spaces of power in government or other key institutions may only be occupied by Malays.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob is the current Prime Minister of Malaysia and candidate for Barisan Nasional. In the Coalition’s Manifesto, most of the proposals, logically, provide continuity to the current ones and do not include major institutional reforms. In addition, he has a high public approval rating which can be attributed not only to his government’s actions but also to the fact that he replaced the previous PM Muhyiddin Yassin. Yassin was forced to resign after public opinion turned against him over his government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, protests took place against him, and he lost the support of parliament. One of the BN’s biggest challenges in this election will be to put the scandalous corruption cases behind its voters’ minds.

Public Opinion Poll: Residents of Malaysia. March 2022. Source: Center For Insights in Survey Research

  • Pakatan Harapan (PH) – Candidate: Anwar Ibrahim

Pakatan Harapan, the successor of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, was the first and only political organisation to break the BN winner-takes-all cyclicality when they won the 2018 elections (GE14). PH was formed in 2015 with a progressive and ideologically social democratic bent, more liberal than its ‘opponents’ on the social aspect and disassociating itself from Ketuanan Melayu Islam by positioning the coalition in favour of a multiracial Malaysian society. It is worth noting that a large part of its Manifesto is aimed at deep institutional reform as well as measures to eradicate corruption

Anwar Ibrahim is one of the most controversial candidates in this election contest. In the wake of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, Anwar Ibrahim, called for an end to the cronyism he accused the then Prime Minister Mahathir and the BN of and the implementation of a meritocratic system. While Mahathir did not want to lose sovereignty vis-à- vis the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Anwar wanted to follow the IMF’s free market-oriented guidelines. In 1998 Anwar was the driving force behind the Reformasi movement in Malaysia, intending to change institutions towards fairer and more equal ones. In 1999 and 2000 he was accused by Mahathir of corruption and sodomy respectively and sentenced to 15   years in prison. Anwar always defended his innocence and described himself as a political prisoner. In 2004 he was released after the Malaysian supreme court overturned the sodomy conviction. After several political attempts Anwar returned to prison in 2014. It was not until 2018 that he was released thanks to a pardon provided by Prime Minister Mahathir, this time as part of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, the same coalition for which Anwar is running in the GE15 as a candidate. His return to politics as a Prime Ministerial candidate has struck a chord with many voters who can see in Anwar a will to change institutions, a lifelong struggle.

 

  • Perikatan Nasional (PN) – Candidate: Muhyiddin Yassin

Perikatan Nasional is a splinter of Pakatan Harapan that came into being in 2020 caused by the Sheraton move. However, the PN, like the BN, is conservative and aligned with Ketuanan Melayu Islam. Therefore, in the GE15, traditional BN voters might opt for the PN, a coalition that defends their main interests but is not tainted by corruption.

Its candidate Muhyiddin Yassin was Prime Minister between March 2020 and August 2021 but had to resign due to a lack of support in parliament and continued protests against him and the Covid-19 policies implemented by his government.

The new swing voters in the GE15

Younger and new voters’ figure to be the decisive group for this election. Their massive presence or absence at the polls can make or break who will be in the new Malaysian government. It should be noted that thanks to the Undi18 movement created in 2016, for the first time Malaysian citizens aged 18 and over will be able to vote, meaning that all those who were not 21 at the last election plus those who have turned 18 this year are new voters. An estimated 5.8 million people have been added to the electoral roll.

In this context, one of the few politicians who has supported this initiative as well as others led by young Malaysians is former sports and youth minister Syed Saddiq. In 2020, Saddiq founded the political party Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, known by its acronym MUDA. Since its inception, MUDA has defined itself as multiracial, youth-driven, led by young technocrats and ideologically diverse. Even so, it has been characterised by a liberal tendency, its closeness to new voters and its great communication skills in all social networks with a high engagement as a political organisation.

For GE15 MUDA is not standing alone and has reached an agreement with Pakatan Harapan (PH) to integrate some members into the coalition. At the same time, Syed Saddiq has asked for the vote for PH by giving explicit support to Anwar. This a strategy that, if it works, could be a way of securing the youth vote for PH in the long term.

Prediction

The following polls show a clear favourite Pakatan Harapan (PH). Both in terms of voting intentions calculated by YouGov and the possible number of seats calculated by the study led by Dr. Rais Hussein, President and CEO of EMIR Research. Even if these predictions come true, PH would still fall short of the 122 seats needed for a parliamentary majority. So to choose a new Prime Minister Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan or even Perikatan Nasional will have to negotiate, either only for the election of the PM or to form a coalition government.

Malaysia GE15 Projection (Peninsular Malaysia). Source: EMIR Research

Party voting intention. Source: YouGov.

 


NOTE: The statements and ideas contained in the analysis and opinion articles are the sole responsibility, in each case, of the analyst, and do not necessarily represent the ideas of GEOPOL 21.