Malaysia’s 15th general election marks a major change in the country’s political landscape. First, the collapse of the 61-year Barisan Nasional (BN) rule in 2018 opened the way for greater political freedom and alternatives. Second, the implosion of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in 2020 led to new power alliances and at the same time fragmented the political scene. Finally, this election will see an influx of roughly 6.9 million first-time voters—16 percent of which are below the age of 21—forcing a rather aging political elite to rethink their communication strategy (for better or for worse).
The traditional political bipolarity is no longer a characteristic of the Malaysian political scene with the emergence of a third Malay-Muslim coalition, Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA), led by Mahathir Mohamad. More importantly, this fragmented political landscape is a fertile ground for the blooming of informal alliances between parties in different coalitions. For example, the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is siding both with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in Muafakat Nasional (MN), and with Bersatu, UMNO’s greatest rival, in Perikatan Nasional (PN). In Sabah, despite their fierce rivalry on the peninsula, PN and BN are allied with local parties under the umbrella of Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS).
The traditional bearers of Malay interests, UMNO and PAS, must share now share Malay votes with recent formations: Bersatu (founded in 2016) and Pejuang (founded in 2020). In 2018, part of the UMNO base shifted to the opposition—mostly to Bersatu, then led by Mahathir. Since UMNO’s historical loss, the party has managed to maintain a strong base and rebuilt its attractiveness with its “good old days” nostalgic reminiscing of the economic performance of past UMNO-led governments; a rhetoric that strongly echoes for all Malaysians in a post-Covid context where inflation is at a high. UMNO’s machinery has shown to be extremely efficient when mobilizing voters and will further benefit from government resources. This gives UMNO an edge that Bersatu does not have.
The opposition no longer benefits from the 2018 momentum. PH voters have been through different stages of disillusion following the fragmentation of the PH coalition and never-ending quarreling within its leading party Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). On the eve of the election, the rivalry between party president Anwar Ibrahim and his deputy Rafizi Ramli has intensified, as has the never-ending attempts at purging the party of remaining elements of what was formerly the Azmin Ali faction. Azmin Ali and several other members of parliament left PKR in early 2020 to form a new government with Muhyiddin’s Bersatu. Since then, Anwar has relentlessly tried to push away Azmin’s former supporters, whom he sees as traitors even though they did not leave the party. As such, the main figures of the Reformasi movement, the democratic movement that shaped PKR, have been pushed aside from this election. This includes Sivarasa Rasiah, Anwar’s former lawyer, Maria Chin, former president of the Bersih movement that called for free and fair elections, and Tian Chua, a symbol of Reformasi who was arrested and jailed for two years without trial under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act.
Party fragmentation and successive changes in government, coupled with the multiple crises of post-Covid recovery, have led to greater skepticism among the electorate. Despite the influx of new voters, a low voter turn-out is expected, reflecting the lack of interest of young and first-time voters and the frustrations of others. The erosion of trust in the political system and democratic institutions is blatant. The lack of civic education in schools, limitations on freedom of expression, the absence of political debate, and a lack of political transparency are some of the many factors that have led to political fatigue. While intense negotiations and a hung parliament are to be expected once results are in, this exercise of democracy is largely misunderstood by Malaysians who may feel again that their voices have been stolen. While Malaysia has yet to achieve its democratic transition, it already bears some of its ills.
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.