Seventy-four percent of Malaysia’s registered voters went to the polls on Saturday. Since 2018, Malaysia has seen no less than four governments, and many observers expected to see the return of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to power. However, BN scored its lowest electoral result in history, winning only 30 seats, including 26 seats won by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). UMNO’s various factions failed to unite during the campaign, and several UMNO leaders have called for the resignation of party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, whose strategic faux-pas in calling for an early election is seen as the main cause of the party’s failure. Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) did not perform as promised and won only 31 seats. However, at 81 in total, his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition has the highest numbers of seats thanks to the Democratic Action Party (40 seats), largely supported by Malaysian Chinese voters, and the Islamist party Amanah (8 seats).
The major surprise of this election is the historic performance of the Islamist party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which has become the leading component of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition and the largest force in parliament with 49 seats compared to the 24 seats won by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s party Bersatu. Meanwhile, Mahathir Mohamad’s Pejuang party and its coalition Gabungan Tanah Air (GTA) were wiped out, and all candidates, including Mahathir, lost their deposit. As of now, days after the election, Malaysia has no government since no party or coalition won a simple majority.
In the past few days, with discussions ongoing, all scenarios, even the most improbable, have been put on the table. While the PN bloc was confident it would form government together with the Borneo-based coalitions, Anwar Ibrahim also initiated talks with other players to form government. The icon of the Reformasi movement invited its ultimate rival UMNO to form government together; a formation that would have contradicted PH’s entire campaign against corruption and for transparency. However, it seems that no sacrifice is big enough when it comes to finally accessing power. Both sides then reinvented their narrative: PH claimed that an alliance with UMNO would be the “only” way to save Malaysia from bigotry, while PN claimed that its coalition is the only stable and “clean” alternative. For a moment, PH’s proposition to UMNO gave the biggest loser of the election the upper hand, even while UMNO was strongly rejected by voters, as shown by the poor performance of its candidates. Finally, after many u-turns, UMNO leadership announced it would not throw its support to any of the two coalitions—at least for now.
Meanwhile, voices within PH, UMNO, and DAP (including former PKR vice president Tian Chua, UMNO deputy president Mat Hasan, and former DAP leader Lim Kit Siang, respectively) have been calling for the formation of a unity government that would include PH and PN together with the coalitions of Sabah and Sarawak (respectively Gabungan Rakyat Sabah and Gabungan Parti Sarawak) and reject UMNO. This proposition may be the only way for Malaysians to finally obtain the stability they have long been waiting for and not risk another government toppling halfway through their mandate.
While the deadline given by the king expired as of 2:00 pm today, all negotiations to form a government have failed. The king summoned both coalition leaders to the palace at 4:00 pm today. While the king has asked them to form a unity government, Muhyiddin Yassin has reasserted that PN will not work with PH; a statement that he reiterated in a press conference on social media. The cards are now in the king’s hand to decide on whom he believes could form a majority.
However, Malaysia’s hopes could rest on whether Anwar Ibrahim and Muhyiddin Yassin are able to come to the table and finally show voters that the country’s interests come before the leaders’ personal or party interests.
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.