Malaysian politicians must reckon with a more demanding electorate

The leaders of Malaysia’s longtime ruling party sought the early election that will be held Nov. 19 to strengthen their hold on power and the spoils of office.

But the announcement of the vote last month was less welcomed by the public. Many worry about unnecessary risks from holding an election during the flood-prone monsoon season and are fatigued by seemingly endless politicking by a self-centered elite.

In their rush for an election at all costs, it is the elite politicians of the historically dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) who will now face a necessary reckoning, one in which Malaysians will determine whether the country will continue to be held hostage to leaders more interested in themselves than the country.

Malaysia has gone through unprecedented, conflicting changes over the past four years. Greater political instability has been accompanied by an expansion of democratic space and greater citizen empowerment. Preelection coalition politics has evolved into more fluid post-election coalition dynamics, forcing policy compromises.

After years of neglect, the east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo are getting more acknowledgment. With weaker and fragmented parties, political polarization around race and religion has ebbed. Yet ethnic minorities have been increasingly displaced in new political alliances. At the same time, calls for better governance have increased, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The instability that has brought four prime ministers in four years began with the May 2018 victory of the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition over the incumbent front led by UMNO, which had led the country since independence.

Prime Minister Najib Razak was ousted from office by predecessor Mahathir Mohamad over the multibillion dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal and policies that had increased the cost of living, including a poorly implemented goods and service tax. Najib was subsequently convicted on multiple corruption and abuse of power charges.

After pledging a political reset, Harapan’s victory opened the political system but the coalition underestimated the costs of overpromising, lacking clear priorities, internal differences and subsequent voter disappointment. Mahathir and longtime nemesis Anwar Ibrahim were unable to work together.

In various state elections and federal by-elections since 2019, Harapan has been punished by former supporters who either did not vote or changed political loyalties. The coalition has struggled to win over younger voters, who now represent a larger share of the electorate after the voting age was lowered to 18 and an automatic voter registration system was introduced.

After 2020, a new coalition led by defectors from Harapan working with UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party, known as PAS, took over. UMNO built on its return to power with political deals and state election victories in Malacca and Johor.

Driven by its leaders’ persistent destabilizing maneuvers, UMNO has positioned itself as the favorite to win the lion’s share of seats in the upcoming 15th national general election, although it likely will not win a majority of votes and considerable uncertainty looms over the outcome.

Over a third of parliament’s 222 seats are highly competitive and could be decided by small vote swings. Another third of its constituencies include substantial numbers of swing voters.

What is locally known as GE15 will also feature many new voters, as registrations have increased from 14.9 million people to over 21 million. Those under 30, with less clear political loyalties, now make up 30% of the electorate.

Unlike past elections that were touted as solutions to Malaysia’s problems, this election is more of a reflection of the country’s challenges.

The main battle lines are drawn between three major coalitions — UMNO’s Barisan Nasional, Harapan and the Perikatan National comprised of PAS and Bersatu, its defector allies from Harapan — instead of two as in 2018. The vote will also feature stronger regional blocs in Borneo.

The national coalitions are led by UMNO President Zahid Hamidi, Harapan’s Anwar Ibrahim and former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, respectively.

Barisan Nasional’s official prime ministerial candidate, however, is incumbent Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaacob. But following the party’s recent maneuver in Johor to replace its ostensible nominee to lead the state with another party official following elections, there is doubt whether it will stick with Ismail.

Traditionally, Malaysian elections have been a contest between economic performance legitimacy and stability on the one hand and demands for reform on the other, a mirror of tensions between conservative and liberal democratic forces globally.

Implicit in Malaysia’s identity politics is disagreement about the best way to accommodate ethnic and regional minorities: whether through acceptance of a secondary role to the Malay Muslim majority or by meeting demands for fairer representation. Identity politics around race and religion have been the most common forms of political mobilization.

Narratives shaping GE15 have widened and been reframed. Barisan Nasional is pushing the notion that it can end instability — ironic given UMNO’s recent destabilizing role — while Harapan still anchors itself around greater democratic governance, especially reducing corruption and protecting the independence of the country’s political institutions.

UMNO has called for Najib to be pardoned and released, citing alleged political persecution. Even imprisoned, Najib continues to be an election issue.

Messaging on inclusion varies widely. UMNO’s Malay nationalist narratives highlight displacement, while Harapan touts its greater pluralism. Borneo parties are demanding greater decentralization, while PAS is pushing for more exclusivist and Islamist conservative governance. New youth party Malaysian United Democratic Alliance and Warisan, Sabah’s regional opposition party, are calling for a move away from identity mobilization altogether.

Voters themselves are less interested in grand political narratives. Their focus is on the economy, service quality and delivery, the social safety net such as it is, and policies to address key challenges such as climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought home the realities of vulnerability and encouraged more public engagement on policies and calls for political competence. Malaysian politicians are struggling to keep up with a more demanding and vocal electorate.

From afar, Malaysia’s politics looks messy. Political transitions often are.

This election will be pivotal in whether the country maintains momentum toward more democratic, robust governance. Resistance to change is strong, especially as reforms impact political patronage and ultimately involve difficult structural changes in the economy.

Recent political history has shown that steps back have provoked even more resolute steps forward. Come the polls, it will be Malaysia’s youth — those socialized in a time of crisis — who will determine in which direction the country will pivot.


First published on Nikkei Asia.