By Lynette H. Ong
After nearly a week of political stalemate, Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition and long-time prime minister-in-waiting has successfully assembled an alliance of political parties to become the leader of the ruling coalition and the 10th Prime Minister of the country. His ruling coalition is made up of Pakatan Harapan, the Barisan Nasional and the regional party, GPS. The political coalition Pakatan Harapan (the Alliance of Hope), which consists of Anwar’s own multiethnic party, PKR, the Chinese-dominated DAP, and the moderate Malay party, AMANAH, won 82 out of the total 222 seats. The long-time ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), which had only won 30 seats, and the Sarawak regional party, GPS, which has 23 seats, have decided to join the Alliance of Hope to give it a comfortable majority of 135 seats in the Parliament.
The results are a relief – and to some even exhilarating – to observers of Malaysian politics and the broader Southeast Asia’s political development. Here are a few salient points about this general election that are worth underlining. Malaysia which has been known as a development-oriented progressive Muslim country, has suffered reputational loss since the 1MDB corruption scandal broke out in 2016 which implicated the ex-prime minister Najib Razak who is now serving jail sentence for embezzlement. The massive corruption scandal has hurt investors’ confidence and further dampened growth in the Malaysian economy that many believe has fallen into the “middle-income trap” despite its earlier strong record.
PAS: From Fringe to Mainstream
Slower growth since the mid-1990s has resulted in growing income inequality and coincided with the rise of religious extremism in Malaysia, neighboring Indonesia, and the region more broadly. Domestically, the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots has fueled political support for the conservative Islamic party, PAS, which espouses the traditional Islamic way of life that is antithetical to secularism in a multi-ethnic society where religious freedom is upheld in the Constitution. The once-fringe party has emerged to become the single largest political party in this election, sweeping victories across 49 constituencies in Peninsular Malaysia, particularly in rural Malay heartland.
The electoral alliance, Perikatan Nasional, to which PAS belongs, clinched 73 seats and is the second largest coalition. The past few days saw an intense behind-the-scenes tussle where it attempted to coalesce the BN and some regional parties to form a majority government. Had it been successful, the conservative Islamic party would have become part of the ruling coalition and may take the country down a path that will betray its celebrated tradition of moderation, religious tolerance, and multiethnic diversity.
The rise of political Islam in Malaysia has its economic roots. Since the country’s independence from the British colonial rule, the long-time ruling coalition, BN, has espoused Malay supremacy with institutionalized reserved privileges embedded in the New Economic Policy that favors the Malays over other ethnic groups, namely the Chinese and Indians. Yet, the affirmative action policy has brought privileges to the well-connected Malay families with cronyistic ties with the Malay ruling party, UMNO, but has trickled down to the rural Malay heartlands in a limited way. The growing disenchantment of poor rural Malays who have benefited not as much from affirmative actions are enticed by religious piousness and admonition of profligacy brought about by modernity. In electoral terms, this is translated into erosion of UMNO’s support in rural heartland and the concomitant rising popularity of PAS.
The inherent rural-urban divide in the electoral map is also noteworthy. Anwar’s PKR draws supporters from the urban progressive and middle-class Malays, and the Chinese voters who support the DAP largely reside in densely populated urban metropolitan areas. However, due to gerrymandering, DAP and PKR’s urban constituencies have traditionally delivered much higher shares of popular votes than number of electoral seats. There is also deep-seated distrust and antagonism between the Malay parties, UMNO and PAS, and the Chinese-dominated DAP, dating back to the bloody racial riots of 1969. The fact that UMNO is able put aside those differences and work with the Alliance of Hope this time points to its position of weakness and the need for a new foundation of its electoral support.
An End to Mahathir
This election saw the demise of a long political career by the 97-years old Mahathir Mohammad who effectively brought down, by back-door channels, the progressive ruling coalition with a strong electoral mandate in 2018 when he was the caretaker Prime Minister. As I have argued in The Street and the Ballot Box, the 2018 victory of the Mahathir-led political alliance, of which Anwar’s PKR was the major party, rode on the popular broad-based “Clean Election” or Bersih movement.
Mahathir has not only lost his electoral seat in this election; he had to forfeit his deposit for not winning sufficient votes beyond a certain threshold. This is an ungraceful exit for an elderly stateman who was once seen as a nation builder and chief architect of economic development. His reluctance to pass on the baton to Anwar – breaking his own promises on more than one occasion – and bringing down the 2018 liberal-minded government has tarnished his reputation beyond repair.
Hope for Malaysia… and for Democracy
Jubilated celebration aside, the road ahead for the Anwar-led Alliance of Hope is fraught with challenges. Resuscitating the economy, rebuilding investors’ confidence, addressing the aspirations of voters who have delivered him the victory and pacifying religious extremism in rural areas are among some of the most pressing challenges. His ruling coalition with broad-based support across ethnic groups and geographical regions provides a glimpse of hope for many who have eagerly waiting for a liberal-minded leader for decades. Just as importantly, it provides a political opportunity for the US, Canada, and other democracies to partner with a progressive and reform-minded government in the Indo-Pacific region that is increasingly shadowed by the growing influence of authoritarian China. Thus, this electoral victory belongs not only to hopeful Malaysians, but also the democrats abroad.
Lynette H. Ong is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. She is the author of The Street and the Ballot Box: Interactions Between Social Movements and Electoral Politics in Authoritarian Contexts (Cambridge University Press, 2022), which draws on Malaysia as a major case study; and Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China (Oxford University Press, 2022). For further information, visit www.LynetteOng.com/home, and follow her on twitter: @onglynette.
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