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Prime Minister Office in Putrajaya, Malaysia
Prime Minister Office in Putrajaya, Malaysia

After a phase of political uncertainty and a change of three Prime Ministers (PMs) since the last election in May 2018, Malaysia is gearing up for the 15th General Election (GE15). On November 19, Malaysian voters will cast ballots in the general election to choose their political representatives, and hopefully a stable government for an uninterrupted five-year term. The winning party or coalition must secure 112 out of 222 Dewan Rakyat (Lower House) seats. While chances of a stable government are still slim, the GE15 is expected to reduce the political turbulence that the country has experienced since the last elections.

In contrast to GE14, when Mahathir Mohamad-Anwar Ibrahim led the opposition coalition – Pakatan Harapan (PH) – to a landslide victory, GE15 is forecasted to return Barisan Nasional (BN), led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to power. However, BN may have to work with other political parties to secure a stable majority.

Even so, BN is still plagued with the fallout from the recent 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal and associated criminal charges, which has seen its former president and former PM Najib Razak imprisoned. The future does not look bright even for the incumbent UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also facing criminal charges. Then again, politics is the art of the possible.

The downfall of UMNO, which has been in power for more than 60 years since independence, led to the opposition winning the 2018 election for the first time in Malaysia's history. However, the opposition coalition fell apart in just 22 months due to infighting, leading to the return of UMNO to the government as a part of another political alliance (the National Alliance or Perikatan Nasional). The breakup of the opposition coalition led to its leaders Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, also parting ways and turning into bitter opponents.

The GE15 is widely perceived as a three-way battle between the UMNO-led National Front (BN) coalition, which has nominated Ismail Sabri as its prime ministerial candidate, the National Alliance (PN) coalition chaired by Muhyiddin, and Anwar Ibrahim's PH or the Hope Pact.

Former PM Muhyiddin Yassin, who took charge in March 2020 when the country was battling Covid, is also hoping to regain the top spot. His party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) has formed an alliance with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the Malaysian People's Movement Party (PGRM). Muhyiddin’s challenge is holding together his coalition, which is highly dependent on PAS. Recent statements by the leadership of its member parties reflect that divisions do exists among coalition members.

Long-time premier hopeful Anwar Ibrahim is also trying to repeat his party's victory in 2018 when the Mahathir- Anwar-led coalition pulled out a historic win over the National Front, which had never lost an election since independence in 1957. Mahathir then chaired the coalition but an internal political tussle resulted in the government crumbling.

Currently, the National Front holds 19% of the federal assembly seats, the National Alliance 21%, and Hope Pact 41%. However, Hope Pact's short-lived government has left many Malaysians bitter about the coalition and slimming Anwar's chance as PM.

Then there is former leader Mahathir, who served as PM for 24 years in two terms and has confirmed his candidacy to defend his Langkawi federal seat. At 97, he would be the oldest person to compete in the country's election history and perhaps the oldest former PM of a country to contest for an electoral constituency. That said, Mahathir’s poor health may substantially weaken his chances. He underwent heart-related medical procedures earlier this year.

The GE15 will be the first election following the passing of the Constitution (Amendment) Act 2019, which lowers the voting age to 18 and mandates that all eligible voters will be registered automatically. As a result, there will be about seven million more voters in GE15 than there were in GE14 (14.9 million voters), bringing the total number of voters to over 21 million.

Political parties believe that young people who are voting for the first time will be a decisive factor in shaping the outcome of the elections. That said, the inter-monsoonal period with frequent floods is also deemed as a deterrent to youngsters, many of whom would have to travel to their respective states to cast their ballots.

Arguably, the uncertainty attached to the election is also because voters are divided along three factors--party, candidate and issues. While party and coalition loyalties are certainly a factor, agenda and candidates are also critically important. For the progressive liberal coalition PH, led by PKR and DAP, with AMANAH, Muda, and UPKO as its members, the GE15 seems a challenge to repeat the 2018 magic. Disillusionment with the political instability that 2018 brought is likely to keep some of their educated, urban, progressive voters away – and that is the biggest concern for the PH coalition. Among the three coalitions, PH is still likely to win more seats, but they may not have enough to secure the slim majority needed. To return to power, PH might have to find another coalition – a possibility slimmed by PH itself as it has already distanced itself from GTA (Mahathir), PN, and the BN.

For ordinary citizens of Malaysia, domestic political instability has led to electoral fatigue of sorts (manifested in the Johor state polls), which has only added to its woes emanating from the slow post-pandemic recovery, the rising cost of living, the economic slowdown, and frequent floods. For young people, jobs and the economy are the main concerns. Youth unemployment is high, many graduates struggle to find jobs, and wage growth has been stagnant.

For a politically dynamic and democratically vibrant Malaysia, the There is No Alternative (TINA) to the current political uncertainty and inter-party deadlock seems another determining factor. In the absence of a towering political figure acceptable to political parties cutting across political ideology and personal differences seems to be the biggest challenge. While politicians like Khairy Jamaluddin and Hishammuddin Hussein (or even younger leaders like Syed Saddiq) are promising candidates for the PM’s office, they are yet to achieve acceptability across party lines. For Anwar Ibrahim, the challenge is to break the glass ceiling and go beyond his 2018 success – something that seems a challenge in GE15. Political instability marked by another round of coalition politics seems the likely path for Malaysian politics – a trend that is likely to continue until a more acceptable political leader or outfit emerges from the current phase of political flux.


The article has been authored by Rahul Mishra, director, Centre for ASEAN Regionalism Universiti Malaya (CARUM), coordinator, European Studies Programme, managing editor, AEI Insights Journal, Asia-Europe Institute, Universiti Malaya.

Article was first publsihed at Hindustan Times.

Last Update: 23/11/2022