Malaysia's ex-premier Muhyiddin Yassin is best-placed to form a government after November 19 elections. Image: Facebook

JOHOR BAHRU – Former national leader Muhyiddin Yassin is seemingly poised to make a comeback as Malaysia’s tenth prime minister after cobbling together a post-election alliance a day after the November 19 polls resulted in a hung parliament with no party or coalition winning a majority.

It marks the first time in Malaysia’s history that a national election did not deliver a clear winner. The vote did, however, produce a clear loser: the Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance whose United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has been the nation’s dominant political force for over six decades.

BN’s Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob had sought to retake the government in Putrajaya, calling an election eight months earlier than required amid monsoon rains, only for the coalition to suffer the worst defeat in its political history, winning only 30 seats out of the 178 it contested.

The polls, which saw a record turnout of 73%, mark the coalition’s second consecutive electoral defeat after initially losing power in a shock result in 2018.

Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) secured a stronger-than-expected 73 seats while pledged support from regional parties in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, namely Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), have boosted its coalition count.

Post-election mixed messaging around BN’s support for a PN-led pact, however, has muddied the political waters.

In a Sunday evening press conference, Sarawak Premier Abang Johari Openg announced that the aforementioned parties – including BN – had come together to strengthen and stabilize the country.

BN chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi later rebuffed that claim amid speculation that the embattled coalition leader is negotiating behind the scenes with Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Zahid, who now faces calls from his party comrades to step aside as UMNO president and BN chief after the coalition’s abysmal performance, said in a statement that BN lawmakers had given him the mandate to determine any political cooperation to form a government, raising the prospect of the defeated coalition potentially playing a kingmaker role.

Voters waved farewell to Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s BN coalition at the November 19 election. Image: EyePress Newswire via AFP /FL Wong

Muhyiddin’s subsequent omission of BN in his coalition announcement, which mentioned only GPS, GRS and “several MPs” as his backers, suggests that some but not all of BN’s 30 elected lawmakers are behind him.

Analysts speculate that BN is split between a pro-PN faction led by caretaker premier Ismail and a Zahid faction that opposes Muhyiddin.   

UMNO’s party rules notably do not compel rogue lawmakers who defy party directives on political cooperation to resign, meaning individual BN politicians could potentially back different post-election pacts. 

It was unclear at the time of publication whether any post-election coalition could claim the 112-seat simple majority needed to form a government.

Anwar’s multiracial PH coalition clinched 82 seats in the polls, making it the country’s single-largest political bloc. Looking sullen and cagey, the veteran politician had claimed to have “the majority to form a government” at a dawn news conference on November 20, without identifying which coalitions or parties supported him.

He reiterated the claim hours later in a televised remarks to the press, insisting that he still had the numbers to form a government while again declining to reveal his purported backers.

“I’m happy that we have settled this with a level of support that I will be given the chance and opportunity to lead this country,” he told reporters. PH needs at least 30 more seats to have an assured simple majority.

The prospect of Anwar’s defeat – despite his coalition winning a plurality of votes cast at 34.1% – would mark a stinging end to the 75-year-old’s long-time and persistently stymied quest to become prime minister.

Prior to the vote, Anwar acknowledged that the coming polls would be his last and spoke about retirement.

His reformist coalition outperformed electoral expectations by scoring big in urban strongholds, overcoming a sense of defeatism that had plagued the PH base after it was toppled in February 2020 after just 22 months in power.

Anwar Ibrahim may have contested his last election. Photo: Zahim Mohd / NurPhoto

But the pact’s apparent failure to win crucial post-election backing from the two Borneo states that together make up a quarter of parliament’s seats could block it from retaking power.

Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, has set a 2 pm deadline on November 21 (Monday) for parties to declare their respective alliances and prime ministerial candidates to form a government.

The king, or Yang di-Pertuan Agong, wields discretionary powers to appoint as prime minister a lawmaker who in his judgment can command a majority in parliament.

Amid the political instability witnessed since the February 2020 collapse of the PH government in a political coup known as the “Sheraton Move” that resulted in Muhyiddin being appointed as the nation’s eighth premier, the monarch has played an influential role by appointing two consecutive premiers without an election being held.

If neither Muhyiddin’s nor Anwar’s coalitions are able to muster a governing majority amid ongoing political horse-trading, Malaysia’s king could allow for the formation of a minority government led by the bloc with the most seats to prevent a power vacuum.

Leaders of PN and PH have both ruled out working together, citing fundamental differences.

The highly competitive race, which BN initially cast as an opportunity to restore political stability, saw a record number of candidates and multi-cornered fights, along with three major coalitions contesting rather than two, factors that led to a splintering of the majority ethnic Malay Muslim vote and difficulties in forecasting the election results.

One-fifth of voters were reportedly undecided ahead of the race and some 6 million new voters cast their ballots after the implementation of an automatic voter registration system and a lowering of the national voting age from 21 to 18. While a large segment of Malay voters rejected BN, they embraced the PN coalition that appropriated and ratcheted up its right-wing messaging.  

Prior to the two-week campaign period that began on November 5, analysts thought Muhyiddin’s coalition had little chance of breaking through as a third-force contender. But PN built momentum as BN floundered on the defensive, with the former challenging UMNO’s historic position as guardian of the country’s ethnic Malay community.  

Muhyiddin, a pancreatic cancer survivor who served as premier from March 2020 to August 2021, led the country’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and leveraged his administration’s generous distribution of pandemic cash aid in PN’s electoral messaging, harnessing social media audience micro-targeting to appeal to the downtrodden.

PN billed itself as a “cleaner alternative” to BN, whose top leader and chairman Zahid faces numerous corruption charges, and leaned heavily on its Islamist coalition partner Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) to shore up its religious credentials. To the surprise of many observers, PAS outperformed all other parties at the polls by winning 44 seats.

“It seems that the Malay fence-sitters and new Malay voters, especially in Malay-majority areas, have found a formidable alternative to champion the Malay agenda. The narrative of Malay and Islam unity and an ‘untainted’ government resonated well in the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and northern Peninsular,” said Hafidzi Razali, a senior analyst at the BowerGroupAsia consultancy.

Competing coalitions fly their flags on the campaign trail ahead of Malaysia’s November 19, 2022 election. Photo: Twitter / Benar

Muhyiddin’s coalition aired divisive rhetoric during the campaign, with the 75-year-old ex-premier claiming on the hustings that Anwar’s PH coalition was an agent of Jews and Christians intending to colonize Malaysia, while PAS’ long-standing advocacy of shariah or Islamic law is viewed as intolerant fundamentalism among the country’s sizable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs think tank, said the election results showed the “serious polarization” of Malaysian politics. “We are witnessing the coming of age of political Islam in Malaysia as PAS has swept the highest number of seats in parliament among all the parties. That is a really significant development.”

Three state governments were also up for grabs during the race, with PN forming the state government in Perlis, historically a BN stronghold, by securing 14 of the state’s 15 seats.

Mirroring national trends, the vote resulted in hung state assemblies in Pahang and Perak, which could result in PN forming both state governments with BN since it has ruled out a pact with PH.

With BN licking its electoral wounds, coalition chief Zahid issued a late-night concession statement calling the results “a clear signal to us.” He notably said the decades-old coalition was willing to “set aside past differences in sentiments” in the interest of stability and was ready to join hands with other parties to form a “stable government.”

Zahid, who polls as one of Malaysia’s least popular politicians, was arguably BN’s biggest liability during the race amid intense speculation that he intended to make himself premier over formally declared candidate Ismail if BN won the vote. UMNO presidents have consistently held the premiership when BN has won past elections.

Serving as deputy premier under prime minister Najib Razak from 2015-18, Zahid took UMNO’s helm following its 2018 election defeat and failed to meaningfully reform the party, say analysts. While on the opposition benches, he maneuvered and conspired to bring down the administrations of both Mahathir Mohamad in February 2020 and Muhyiddin in August 2021.

Zahid’s dismay with Ismail’s premiership, which observers believe was grounded in the latter’s reluctance to interfere with the former’s legal cases, led to an open split within UMNO that ultimately undermined the BN’s election campaign, particularly as Zahid sidelined a number of candidates allied with Ismail, potentially costing the coalition seats.

James Chin, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, said Zahid’s fundamental mistakes were that “he replaced too many of the warlords in UMNO, guys that deliver the votes. More importantly, he should have never projected himself as a UMNO leader. People just could not accept that he would be in a position to be the prime minister.”

The race also delivered several shock losses for political heavyweights. BN’s Khairy Jamaluddin, the 46-year-old caretaker health minister who openly campaigned on his aspiration to lead Malaysia by reforming his coalition, suffered a surprise defeat along with Anwar’s 42-year-old daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar. Both politicians had been widely seen as next-generation leaders of their top parties.

Five politicians who defected from Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) during the Sheraton Move, causing the collapse of the PH government, got their comeuppance from voters who rejected their candidacies. Former PKR deputy president Mohamad Azmin Ali, widely seen as one of the engineers of the backroom maneuver, lost to a PH candidate by over 12,700 votes.

Anwar Ibrahim (L) together with Azmin Ali (right) during happier political times. Photo: Malay Mail / Hari Anggara.

Caretaker Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz, a former banking executive turned appointee technocrat under Muhyiddin’s and Ismail’s premierships, was similarly shown the door by voters. His first attempt at becoming an elected politician failed when he narrowly lost to Dzulkefly Ahmad, a widely respected incumbent who served as the PH government’s health minister.

However, the biggest surprise rout of the evening was that of 97-year-old former premier Mahathir, who came in fourth in a five-cornered fight in his stronghold constituency of Langkawi, an island that received major state development funding during his first 1981-2003 term as premier with the aim of turning it into an international tourism destination.

The stunning defeat for Malaysia’s longest-serving two-time premier marked his first electoral loss in 53 years. His newly formed Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA) coalition performed miserably with all of its 168 candidates, including his 57-year-old son and political heir Mukhriz Mahathir, suffering the indignity of losing their campaign deposits for failing to garner more than one-eighth of the votes cast.

“He was totally rejected by the Malay electorate and has lost almost all political credibility in the Malay community,” said academic Chin. “What we’re seeing is probably the end of Mahathirism. His legacy is now badly damaged by what he did this time. Anybody who writes about his political legacy will have to mention this event, where he lost his deposit.”

Follow Nile Bowie on Twitter at @NileBowie