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Michael Sainsbury

Malaysia faces first hung parliament as support for Islamic alliance surges

Malaysia’s political landscape is more fractured than ever after Saturday’s elections as support surges for the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and the nation faces its first hung parliament.

Alliance leaders Muhyiddin Yassin and former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim have failed after three days of frantic talks to get the numbers to form government. Now the decision rests with King Al-Sultan Abdullah, who suggested yesterday the two alliances vying for power should form a “unity government”.

Anwar, 75, still has some hope of leading the country. His Pakatan Harapan (PH), or Alliance of Hope, triumphed against the odds in 2018 when it broke decades of effective one-party rule. His party coalition gained the largest number of seats, 82.

Bersatu leader and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin heads the Perikatan Nasional (PN), or National Alliance. It won 73 seats, including 44 for PAS. He could return to the leadership after 15 months with a cobbled-together coalition. 

The tables have reversed on UMNO, the party of incumbent PM Ismail Sabri Yaakob, and its Barisan National (BN) Alliance, or National Front. It was once the decades-long ruling party, but the corruption-tainted alliance won just 30 seats in what observers have described as a “humiliating result”. UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s decision to hold elections nine months early and in the middle of the monsoon season has badly backfired.

But UMNO has remained at the centre of horse-trading, refusing to back either PH or PN. So now the king steps in. The past two prime ministers have been confirmed this way — but never after an election.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 97, was rejected by voters in his constituency, ending his long career. And Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, was surprisingly defeated by PAS in the family’s long-time Penang state stronghold.

UMNO/BN was originally seen as having the upper hand as PN was still regathering its coalition. But the rise of PAS, which has been in power in a number of Malaysian states, appears to have proved decisive in stealing votes from UMNO/BN, leading to a probable PN victory.

Voting turnout at about 70% was lower than 2018’s record showing of 82%, underscoring voters’ apathy in the face of corruption scandals and political instability.

The rise of PAS — in tandem with Malay nationalist Bersatu — will cause unease among minority Chinese and Indian ethnic groups, as well as neighbouring Indonesia and more generally in the region. This is no truer than in Australia. The Australian Federal Police has devoted manpower and resources in the decade since the Bali bombing to assist Jakarta in its efforts to build security.

But due to the shaky status of the NA coalition and the penchant of small parties to switch allegiance, it is unclear how much radical change PAS can make. While it is clearly the swing factor, if it pushes too hard the alliance could collapse.

In the past five years, Malaysian politics has been upended. On the back of the world’s biggest publicly known political corruption scandal, UNMO/BN was swept from power by a revolution at the ballot box. At the heart of its dramatic fall was the US$4.5 billion ($6.75 billion) corruption, embezzlement and money laundering fiasco through the state-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad — widely known as 1MBD — that involved foreign governments, Hollywood actors and eventually Beijing.

It was branded by the US as the world’s biggest kleptocracy case, and saw former prime minister Najib Razak pushed out of office and eventually jailed.

The end result was a popular electoral uprising that saw Najib’s party, the UMNO, and its BN coalition dumped after 61 years in power — the entirety of Malaysia’s history as an independent nation.

Mahathir, once a long-serving UMNO leader and PM, returned to lead PH to power. But PH collapsed due to internal infighting as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. This saw Muhyiddin replace Mahathir and he in turn was replaced by Yaakob in June 2021.

BN had built its six-decade success by representing and pandering to ethnic Malays who are a  62% majority of the population. They have been positively discriminated against by the Malaysian government over the more economically successful Chinese and Indian minorities. This time, PN proved more successful in the core rural demographic of Malays.

Ethnic Chinese make up 21% of the population of the South-East Asia-wide diaspora from the south of China. Indians make up 6% and are a legacy from British colonial rule.

Malaysia is a major player in South-East Asia and its fifth-largest economy, just pipped by the Philippines and behind Indonesia, Thailand and fast-rising Vietnam. On a per capita basis, its GDP bests the economies above it and is outstripped only by Singapore, South-East Asia’s only “First World” economy. It is Australia’s 10th-biggest trade partner, with $21.6 billion in two-way trade in 2021, and is bested in South-East Asia only by Singapore.

From Australia’s point of view, clear-cut election results and political stability are seen as beneficial for economics and trade. However, apart from the PAS factor, Canberra’s main focus — as distinct from the Australian business sector — will be on the new government’s relationship with China.

During the 2018 election campaign, Mahathir channelled popular discontent with rising Chinese investment in the country and Najib’s close relationship with Beijing, promising to review contracts if he won power. There were reports in 2019 that China had offered to bail out the IMDB state fund in 2016.

UMNO is seen as having much stronger ties with China, and a return to power — with PAS — would be of the most concern to Australia geopolitically, although trade relations are likely to continue to be strong, whatever the result.

It remains to be seen whether PAS may be a tempering influence on its pro-China partner. The last government abstained from a UN vote on Beijing’s diabolical treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, so any change in that stance would be welcomed.

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