Malaysia has seen a long series of political surprises since the GE15 polling day on November 19. The political fatigue that many Malaysians (and observers) suffered in the run-up to the election did not translate into abstention, with over 70 percent voter turnout. The large influx of first-time voters (6.9 million across all generations) increased the number of participants in this highly anticipated election after three years of political instability.
While many observers assumed that the young generation (aged 18 to 20), which constituted about 16 percent of new voters, would blow the winds of change, this change did not turn in favor of the liberal democratic opposition (Pakatan Harapan, or PH). In a context where the traditional representative of Malay interests, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has been undermined by factionalism and financial scandals, most Malay voters, including Malay youth, directed their hopes and votes toward the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, and mostly toward its most conservative component: Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).
Compared to GE14 in 2018, Bersatu gained 11 seats from 13 to 24, while PAS gained 31 seats from 18 to 49. Meanwhile, PH scored a total of 82 seats, due to the 40 seats won by its ally the Democratic Action Party (DAP), while Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) won just 31 seats compared to 47 in 2018. The youth-centric Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) party scored only one seat as an ally to the PH coalition. Meanwhile, the former ruling UMNO scored only 26 seats, its worst electoral result since the party’s founding in 1946. As no coalition won a simple majority, Malaysia faced its first hung parliament in history. The two main coalitions were head-to-head: PN with 74 seats and PH with 81 seats. And then started the political courting of the two Bornean coalitions, Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), as well as all other possible allies.
After a period of uncertainty, Anwar Ibrahim, with the support of Malaysia’s king, succeeded in forming a majority by building bridges with the very same forces he had attacked during his decades of democratic struggle: UMNO. Soon after, the Bornean coalitions joined forces with PH’s new extended family. Despite the king’s request for a unity government that included both PH and PN, PN chairman and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin declined the invitation, arguing he would not work with the UMNO cluster, referring to UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and other individuals tainted by corruption scandals.
Tensions grew in Malaysian public discourse as negotiations took place until the formation of the cabinet on December 2, as many Malays felt that their voices had not been heard and that they had been deprived of their victory. PH is a coalition mostly supported by non-Malay and non-Muslims; its alliance with UMNO is a rather shaky compromise, as the latter party was strongly rejected by its traditional Malay supporters in the polls. The haunting memories of the political violence of 1969 and the May 13 incident resurfaced with viral racist videos portraying Chinese Malaysians and the DAP as being the instigators of past violence. Narratives around May 13 have been historically distorted for political gain and weaponized by politicians to push for their agenda since it occurred, though research in fact shows that these events were politically orchestrated rather than a spontaneous spark of violence. For a few days, social media were filled with racist slurs and threats, while some non-Malay voices claimed that they were preparing for their departure from the country.
Anwar, Malaysia’s longtime prime minister-in-waiting, has finally reached the highest post in the country. However, the golden chair comes at a very heavy price and with dangerous compromises. PN has already warned that it will attempt to overthrow the majority by a no-confidence vote in parliament on December 19, and the leader of PAS has described PN as “the government-in-waiting.”
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.
This article first appeared on csis.org.