After a momentous week that saw Malaysia’s post-colonial political model rearranged in a manner few believed possible, the nation is drawing breath and assessing what the defeat of the only form of government the country has ever experienced means, when it is replaced by … what?
The opposition’s election victory is largely ascribed to the efforts of three individuals: Mahathir, the 92-year-old former prime minister with well-established autocratic tendencies; Azizah Ismail, wife of Mahathir’s former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who both Mahathir and recently defeated Najib imprisoned on charges specifically intended to destroy his reputation and political credibility; veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, who is widely viewed as representing the country’s Chinese ethnic minority.
This ill-matched group and their supporters combined to form the Pakatan Harapan (P.H., ‘Pact of Hope’) alliance under Mahathir, specifically to defeat the then ruling Barisan Nasional (B.N.) coalition led by Najib. B.N, which under various guises has grouped the mainstream ethnic and now largely plutocratic Malay, Chinese and Indian parties, has controlled Malaysia’s political system since 1955. This intercommunal coalition model managed the transition from British rule to independence and profited by the emergence of the resource-rich country as a middle-ranking and economically stable power over more than 60 years, and its removal was not seen as remotely possible even a few weeks before the 9 May polls.
The removal [of the B.N. coalition] was not seen as remotely possible even a few weeks before the 9 May polls
The incumbent B.N. government, dominated by Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno), had deployed all its legislative resources ahead of the polls to disadvantage its political opponents. These included altering electoral boundaries, maintaining huge gerrymandered vote banks in the East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, introducing vague laws criminalising so-called ‘fake news’, offering significant cash incentives to government employees and closing down media that supported P.H. All to no avail; P.H. won 113 seats against B.N.’s 79 seats to win power with a simple majority in the 222-seat parliament on a high turnout of 82 per cent. The remainder of the seats went to the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) which draws its support from mainly rural Muslim Malays in the north and eastern peninsular states and small parties that tend to ally with the ruling coalition.
P.H. won 113 seats against B.N.’s 79 seats to win power with a simple majority in the 222-seat parliament
Many foreign companies’ and investors’ concerns are now focused on the election’s impact on political stability, the new administration’s economic policies and whether any past relationship with the defeated B.N. coalition will have legal or commercial consequences for their business interests.
The election outcome at one level pitted former Umno leader Mahathir against his successors in a party created to ensure Malay hegemony. Following a series of personal disagreements between the two men and growing evidence that widespread and massive corruption was doing the country considerable harm, Mahathir announced he would challenge Najib and Umno. In September 2016 he launched the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM, but invariably referred to as Bersatu) as a nationalist Malay political party that in most respects mirrored Umno. In November 2016 Bersatu joined the P.H. alliance formed the previous year and comprising Azizah’s largely urban-based multi-ethnic People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Lim’s overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP). Both PKR and DAP outperformed Bersatu in April 2018, with PKR winning 48 seats and the DAP 42 seats, against Bersatu’s 12 seats out of P.H.’s 113 total.
Fractures within the P.H. alliance became evident as cabinet-level posts were announced
However, within days of winning the election, Mahathir’s status and skills were quickly called for as fractures within the P.H. alliance became evident as cabinet-level posts were announced. A key dispute was said to involve Azizah’s objection to the DAP’s secretary-general Lim Guan Eng being given the finance ministry post on the grounds of his Chinese ethnicity; Lim is the first ethnic Chinese to hold the finance portfolio in 44 years and the incident is an early indicator of how disunited the P.H. alliance, created solely to end Najib’s and Umno’s rule rather than combine any firmly held common ideological or reformist agenda, may prove to be.