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Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera

Relief for Anwar as Malaysians back status quo in ‘nail-biting’ state polls

Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim speaks after the release of state election results at the World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur on August 12, 2023 [Mohd Rasfan/ AFP]

Voters in Malaysia have backed the political status quo in pivotal regional elections, giving Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s ruling coalition and the conservative opposition control of three states each.

Saturday’s election in six of Malaysia’s 13 states was widely seen as a referendum Anwar’s leadership and the strength of the opposition, which includes the religious conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), after a divisive general election in November.

Data from the Election Commission showed Anwar’s multiethnic Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance triumphing in the three states it held prior to the vote: Selangor and Penang, which are the country’s richest, as well as Negeri Sembilan.

The results also showed the PAS-backed Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance keeping its hold on the heartland states of Kedah, Kelantan and northern Terengganu.

Anwar welcomed the results at a late-night press conference and appealed for unity.

“This is a decision of the people. We have to respect this decision,” the prime minister said.

“The federal government remains strong after this poll and we will continue to promote a prosperous Malaysia,” he added.

The opposition, however, called the outcome a “defeat” for the ruling coalition.

Muhyiddin Yassin, who leads the PN, noted strong gains by the opposition bloc, including in Selangor where it increased its share of seats from five in the previous election to 22 and denied the ruling coalition its two-thirds majority.

In Penang, the opposition bloc won 11 seats, up from one in the previous vote, and in Negeri Sembilan, it won five seats, up from zero in the last election.

Muhyiddin called the outcome “very encouraging” and said the “state polls are a referendum by the people rejecting the unity government led by Pakatan Harapan”.

He said Anwar and his deputy, Zahid Hamidi, should resign to “take responsibility for this defeat”.

Analysts, meanwhile, said the outcome lifted pressure on Anwar and would boost the stability of his nascent government.

The 76-year-old politician took office in November at the head of a unity government after a general election resulted in an unprecedented hung parliament.

Anwar’s PH had won the most seats but fell short of the outright majority needed to form a government. At the behest of the king, the PH and rival parties, including former foe, the corruption-tainted United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), came together to secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

But analysts say this loose alliance is perceived as unstable and needs stronger support from the Malay majority.

Many Malays view Anwar as too liberal and fear their Islamic identity and economic privileges under a decades-old affirmative action programme could be chipped away. Malays make up more than two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people.

Oh Ei Sun, an analyst at the Pacific Research Center of Malaysia think tank, said Saturday’s outcome “was a nail-biting win for Anwar after he thwarted the challenge from the powerful Islamic party PAS”.

But Anwar “must remain vigilant”, Oh said.

“There is no guarantee that his government will stay until the next general elections.”

Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst with consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, told the AFP news agency that “it was in many ways a stress reliever for Anwar not to be confronted with any major political shifts that could alter the status quo”.

But the outcome was also a disappointment in that “his coalition did not make much significant inroads”, Mustafa said.

Still, Anwar “has more than enough time” before the 2027 general elections “to shore up support including the complex political bargaining that may need to happen within the coalition”, he added.

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