Ahead of GE15, Will it Be Back to the Future for Malaysian Politics?

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Ahead of GE15, Will it Be Back to the Future for Malaysian Politics?

Despite its shock defeat in 2018, UMNO’s proven brand of ethnic Malay identity politics could play a decisive role in Saturday’s election.

Ahead of GE15, Will it Be Back to the Future for Malaysian Politics?

United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and Barisan National coalition President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, front left, and caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, front right, wave coalition flags during an event naming general election candidates at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Nov. 1, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/ Vincent Thian

Malaysia goes to the polls this Saturday and there is a lot of international interest. A lot of this interest is due to the unusual circumstances of this poll. Barely four years ago, there were celebrations among democracy advocates when the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition was defeated after six decades in power. The country’s first regime change had finally arrived, leaving Singapore as the only Southeast Asian state where no change of regime has taken place.

Far more important, Anwar Ibrahim, long promoted as the West’s Islamic democrat, was able to depose BN via the ballot box without violence, unlike in other parts of the region.

Of course, Anwar was only able to do this after he formed an electoral alliance with Mahathir, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister and former chief of the United Malaysia National Organization (UMNO). In a nod to Mahathir’s pivotal role in the 2018 general elections, Mahathir was made prime minister, with a promise that Anwar would take over in 2020. But when the time came, Mahathir refused to step down, creating a political impasse that led to the formation of another government in March of that year. This, in turn, collapsed in 2021, leading to the creation of another government. Thus, from six decades of no regime change, Malaysia experienced three changes of government in four years. All this came on top of the debilitating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which largely shut down the economy for two years and caused thousands of deaths.

Fast forward to today. Who are the main contestants and what do they represent?

First is the BN coalition. BN has been the ruling coalition since independence in 1957 and ruled continuously until 2018. It only lost power when the 1MDB corruption scandal became too big for the population to swallow, although UMNO, the linchpin in the BN coalition, had long been synonymous with high-level corruption and Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) ideology. But as long as Malaysia experienced decent growth, political stability, and linear progress, the bulk of the population was willing to look the other way.

In a nutshell, BN is offering a “back to the future” politics at this week’s election. It is campaigning on the theme of “political stability” and “prosperity.” In UMNO-speak, BN is the only coalition with a track record to bring stability back to the Malaysian political system. In other words, a vote for BN is a vote for the good old days pre-2018.

Second is Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. This election is widely seen to be the last chance for Anwar, who is 75, to become prime minister. He has made at least four serious attempts in the past three years to clinch the top job but was thwarted every time. PH’s narrative is simple and divided into two simple elements. The first slice is that PH’s mandate was stolen when Mahathir’s sudden resignation in 2020 lead to the creation of a new backdoor government. Hence, the voters should return PH to power to restore the people’s mandate. Second, PH is the only party that truly fights corruption and is committed to multiracial politics. This may sound silly to foreigners but in Malaysia, a real fight against corruption and commitment to multiracial politics is not easy, given the omnipresence of political Islam and Ketuanan Melayu ideology.

The third serious player is the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, led by Muhyiddin Yassin, the ex-prime minister who led the internal coup that caused the downfall of the PH government in 2020. PN shares the same DNA as UMNO, with the bulk of its leadership comprised largely of ex-UMNO leaders and Islamists. PN is pitching itself as being made up of Malay leaders who are “clean,” in contrast to UMNO’s upper echelons. Its Islamic component, PAS, has a strong grassroots presence among religious conservative voters.

The fourth serious player is the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) coalition. Unlike the others, GPS stands for “Sarawak First,” or state nationalism, and is only interested in getting complete autonomy for the Borneo state. GPS is widely expected to win handsomely in Sarawak, and to clinch about 12 percent of the seats in parliament. It, therefore, stands a chance of becoming the “kingmaker” if the other three players cannot win a clear majority.

This time around, Mahathir will not play a key role. Although he has cobbled a new coalition, GTA, at the age of 97, nobody takes the coalition seriously. Consisting mainly of hard-line right-wing Malay parties, 90 percent of its candidates are expected to lose. GE15 will thus see the end of a remarkable political career, in tears.

With the election just days away, what does the polling tell us? There have been six major polls conducted during and just before the campaign period. Four of them predict an UMNO/BN victory and two say that PH will win. All the polls show none of the three major coalitions (BN, PH, and PN) gaining anyway near the minimum 112 seats needed to form a new government in the 222-seat parliament. The most optimistic poll shows PH winning just 99 seats. Polls updated after the first week of the campaign show PH leading in four of the six surveys, indicating that UMNO/BN will not be the coalition with the most seats.

Although PH may be the favorite of voters, in terms of PM preference, surprisingly, Muhyiddin is in pole position, followed by Anwar then Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the leader of UMNO. In fact, conventional wisdom says that UMNO is not the clear favorite because Zahid is extremely unpopular. Many voters think he forced the general election because he needs to get back into power to avoid going to jail on the several corruption charges currently facing him.

In my opinion, the real reason why the polls may not truly reflect the sentiments on the ground is that most people have already made up their minds who they will vote for. First-time voters, numbering one-third of the electorate due to the automatic registration of voters and the lowering of the voting age to 18, will be mostly undecided until the last day of the campaign. Moreover, Malaysians are notorious for not telling the truth when it comes to political preferences.

If I was a betting man, I would place my money on BN making a big comeback. While it is true Zahid is unpopular, people are underestimating the strength of the UMNO brand among rural Malay voters. Over the past two years, they have experienced political instability and the COVID-19 pandemic and just want some normalcy in their lives again. UMNO, despite all its faults, is still the Malay party that most rural Malays trust to protect Ketuanan Melayu. UMNO also still boasts one of the best electoral machineries in rural areas. The only thing you need to start the machinery is money, and UMNO money could be a decisive factor in the final few days.

The BN’s manifesto, a carbon copy of the budget tabled in October, promises free cash for about 70 percent of the population, including universal income. Many in the middle class will also benefit directly from the subsidies. Some may call this “vote buying,” but direct subsidies and cash transfers are seen as acceptable forms of direct financial aid to the needy.

One should also remember that under the Malaysian system, if no party gets half or more of the parliamentary seats, the constitutional monarch steps in and selects the party leader who he thinks can command “the confidence” of Parliament. UMNO has played this game before and won.

One more thing. When UMNO forms the government, expect GPS to be an ally, providing the numbers to cement BN’s numbers and provide the much-needed super majority to ensure political stability for the coming five-year term.

Whether Zahid will be the UMNO PM is another question, and much will depend on the numbers game. If Zahid can deliver a solid majority for UMNO, nothing can stop him. If UMNO must rely on other parties and a wider coalition, then perhaps he will not get the coveted job.

Even if I am wrong about UMNO forming the government, I predict that a dominant Malay party will emerge from this election. In 2018, the Malay vote was roughly divided in three equal parts, between UMNO, Bersatu, and PAS.  This will not be the case anymore. We will see a return to duopoly in the Malay heartland where there will only be two choices: a dominant Malay party and another, smaller Malay-based party.

This election will likely deliver political stability to Malaysia – and that will be good both for the country and the region.