Malaysia’s 15th General Election (GE15) has significant implications. Picture: Round Table Journal and Malaysia Parliament buildingCover of the June special edition of The Round Table Journal and Malaysia's Parliament building. [Parliament: Alamy stock]

[This is an excerpt from the introduction to a special edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

Malaysia’s 15th General Election (GE15) on 19 November 2022 produced a 19-party coalition government led by Anwar Ibrahim, which now controls a two-third parliamentary majority. This government comprises four coalitions: Anwar’s Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan, PH), the once dominant National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN), Sarawak Parties Alliance (Gabungan Parti Sarawak, GPS) with and Sabah People’s Alliance (Gabungan Rakyat Sabah, GRS), which have, respectively, four, four, four and three parties in the Federal Parliament. The coalition also has four standalone parties, Heritage Party (Parti Warisan, Warisan), the youth-based Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) and two regional parties.

GE15 itself has at least four significant implications. First, it led to the fourth peaceful transfer of power since the end of BN’s 61-year rule in 2018, such that Malaysia technically passes Huntington’s test of ‘two consecutive turnovers’ even though her democracy is far from consolidated. Second, it produced a hung parliament right after the election, the first time at the federal level. A hung parliament first emerged after the ‘Sheraton Move’, described in detail elsewhere in this issue, in February 2020, which saw the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Parti Bersatu Pribumi Malaysia, PPBM) leaving PH and installing its president Muhyiddin Yassin as the new Prime Minister. Third, it recorded an unprecedented rise of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) which became the largest single party in Parliament with 19% of seats. Driven by both PAS and Bersatu, the National Alliance (Perikatan Nasional, PN) is now the sole Opposition with one-third of seats. Fourth, only three of Malaysia’s 13 states had their elections concurrently, ending the conventional vertical and horizontal simultaneity in the election calendar, indicating the decoupling of federal-state politics since 2018.

Malaysia: The 15th general election and its implications – Special issue
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In his opinion piece, Kian-Ming Ong, political scientist at Taylor’s University and ex-parliamentarian of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), welcomes the intrigues Malaysia’s increasingly competitive and constantly evolving political landscape bring to comparative researchers in at least three areas: ethnically divided societies, democratic change and electoral reform in authoritarian regimes and the dynamics of electoral coalitions.

Party system

Malaysian politics has always been centred on coalitions due to the needs of inter-ethnic power-sharing and vote-pooling under the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system. However, the number of serious coalitions has grown over the decades from one to two to now three national coalitions and two regional coalitions. The two-coalition system Malaysian democrats aspired to establish since 1990 was one consisting of two multi-ethnic coalitions competing centripetally, resembling the British two-party system. However, as the present writer warns in a separate article, a toxic multiethnic-monoethnic binary competition has emerged as the new two-coalition format since 2018 after BN’s defeat and disintegration in 2018. He argues that Malaysia’s three coalition governments since 2020 resemble ‘shifting coalitions’ in Dutch and Belgian consociationalism more than the permanent coalition of Alliance in Malaysia’s early years did, even though the government–opposition relation now is anything but consociational. To incentivise interethnic moderation and political stability, uneven distribution of policymaking power and patronage between government and opposition parties needs to be reduced. This was possible as shown by the 2021 political truce between the BN Government under Ismail Sabri and PH.

The Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak have their own regional party systems, which feature regional coalitions, national coalitions and standalone regional parties. Regional coalitions like Sabah Alliance and Sarawak Alliance disappeared after their absorption into BN in 1974. Arnold Puyok and Hafizan Mohamad Naim of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) detail and explain how federal-level government changes in 2018 and 2022 caused the re-emergence of regional coalitions in Sarawak and then in Sabah. Within a month of BN’s 2018 defeat, its state chapter consisting of four regional parties pulled out and rebranded itself as GPS. Riding on regionalism, GPS won a 93% legislative majority in the state election in December 2021, but its electoral victory was less extensive in the federal election 11 months later, with PH re-emerging as its biggest competitor. In Sabah, the 2018 election made Warisan the most successful Muslim-led regional party since 1984, which led the state government with national coalition PH and regional party United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (UPKO) as its junior partners. Six months after the Sheraton Move, new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin assembled an ad-hoc coalition of PN, BN and an ex-BN regional party United Sabah Party (Parti Bersatu Sabah, PBS). This new entity – GRS – unseated Warisan and evolved into a regional coalition without BN and led by the Sabah chapter of Bersatu. Post-GE15, GRS joined Anwar’s coalition government, which PN vehemently opposed. Within weeks, GRS cut its ties with PN and Sabah Bersatu morphed into Parti Gagasan Rakyat Sabah (Gagasan) to be GRS’ anchor party.

Except for PN, all coalitions and parties holding federal seats in Sabah and Sarawak are now partners in Anwar’s 19-party government, but many remain competitors to each other at the state-level. In January 2023, the Sabah chapter of UMNO and Warisan tried but failed to bring down the GRS-led state government. In retaliation, lawmakers from Sabah UMNO and Warisan left their parties to join Gagasan. Dominated by strongmen and fuelled by patronage, regional parties can realign and move in and out of coalitions at ease.

Other special issues of The Round Table Journal

The post-GE15 crossovers of lawmakers were partly blamed on the fact that Sabah had not passed its own anti-hopping law (AHL) modelled on the federal one. Coming into force just five days before GE15, the federal AHL – amendments to the Federal Constitution which would cause defecting MPs to lose their seats and face by-elections – had prevented post-election chaos, as Thomas Fann of Malaysia’s Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) argues in an opinion piece for this issue.

Green wave and youth vote

Dubbed the Green Wave after PAS’ well-advertised colour, the most talked-about phenomenon was a surprisingly good performance by PN, especially PAS. Many see this as the rise of Islamism and fear that it might continue in the state elections in six states ruled by PAS and PH – Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan – in July or August 2023. As PN appeared to attract more youth votes than PH and BN, many also attributed this to the influx of some six million new voters between the 2018 and 2022 elections, due to two far-reaching measures in expanding the franchise – the lowering of voting age from 21 to 18 (Undi18) and automatic voter registration (AVR) – in December 2021.

After analysing opinion polls including some designed and commissioned by himself, Hidekuni Washida of Toyo University, Japan, dismisses the ethno-religious grievance hypothesis of the Wave, and he contests how Green this was. He argues that its main cause was a last-minute swing of undecided voters, whose primary motivation was economic grievances instead. Even though PN’s election campaign succeeded in attracting younger voters through a savvy use of TikTok and other social media, this does not imply that those young voters supported PN out of a conviction of PAS’ Islamism. Although chronic malapportionment helped more than double PAS’ seats, the party continued to win less than 20% of votes in the Peninsula. While PAS supporters were motivated by the ethno-religious cause, distributive benefits and discontent with UMNO seemed more effectively in driving Bersatu supporters and undecided voters to support PN. Opinion data shows that voters outside of Kelantan and Terengganu might not have even recognised whether their PN candidates were from PAS or Bersatu. To prevent further rise of support for PAS and PN, Washida argues, the Anwar Ibrahim Government should prioritise bread-and-butter issues to win back swing voters with economic grievances and pursue institutional reforms including the correction of intra-state malapportionment, instead of pandering to Malay-centrism.

Chin-Huat Wong isProfessor and Deputy Head (Strategy), SDSN Asia Headquarters, Sunway University, Sunway, Malaysia.