Malaysian general election results in a hung parliament

Anwar Ibrahim pictured in 2013. Following the recent general election that delivered a hung parliament, the monarch appointed Anwar Ibrahim as the next prime minister (Photo: Firdaus Latif/CC)

The general election in Malaysia resulted in no coalition being able to form a government with a simple majority. For the first time in its history, Malaysia has a hung parliament, with rival coalitions claiming to have enough support to form the next government. However, following the intervention from the monarch, Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), was selected as the next prime minister and will head the government.

The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition suffered defeat in many constituencies and its parliamentary representation was drastically reduced. They only managed to win 30 seats compared to 79 in the previous election. Furthermore, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which is the main component of the BN coalition, only won 26 parliamentary seats and has effectively become one of the smallest parties in Malaysian politics.

The fall of UMNO, which has dominated the Malaysian Parliament for over 60 years since independence, has come as a shock to many pundits. However, it is not at all surprising that the people resoundingly rejected BN since it has been exposed as a corrupt organisation, with their previous Prime Minister Najib Razak, sentenced to 12 years in jail for corruption cases just two months ago. The current UMNO President, Zahid Hamidi, who is facing more than 40 charges of corruption cases himself, has become a hated figure in the country. Zahid only just managed to win with a slim majority of 348 votes in his constituency, which was known as a stronghold for BN.

The newly formed Perikatan Nasional, which comprises Bersatu (a split from UMNO in 2017) and PAS (the Islamic conservative party), managed to become the second biggest coalition after PH with 73 seats. PAS has become the biggest single party in parliament, adding 31 MPs to their previous 18. With 49 seats, PAS has clearly replaced UMNO as the most popular Malay-based party in the country in this election.

Pakatan Harapan not only failed to win 112 seats in order to form a simple majority government, they have also failed to repeat their electoral success of the 14th general election, only achieving 82 seats this time. This is a setback for PH, which is continuously losing support from the masses after their abysmal 22 months in power that ended abruptly. It is clear now that PH economic policies have devastated and disappointed the poor populations of the north and the east coast who rejected them, giving PN the upper hand in those areas. Only a few west coast and southern states supported PH. This is not because they are seen as representing the interests of the people, but simply to avoid conservative forces like PN or BN taking over the country comfortably.

Meanwhile, the ex-prime minister and Malaysian political veteran, Mahathir Mohammad, was unilaterally rejected by the voters together with his newly formed political party Pejuang. Pejuang politicians did not win a single seat in from the more than 130 constituencies which they contested. It was a reflection of the mood of the people who punished many of the antiquated political leaders in this election who are seen as contributing to the ongoing political crisis.

No choice for the people

Upon hearing the results of this general election, many have concluded that Malaysia is heading towards a right-wing, conservative society dominated by Malay-based political forces. But this is a one-sided analysis which fails to take into consideration the lack of choice available in the electoral process for the masses. People are given a choice of the lesser of evils, and rival coalitions are seen as the lesser evil in different areas. The more industrialised and populated west coast sees Pakatan Harapan as the lesser evil and in the more rural areas, PN was the choice.

It is true that Malaysian society is becoming more polarised in terms of people now voting against political parties. But this is clearly because they don’t have a clear alternative which truly represents the aspirations of the masses. The failure of the previous multiracial PH government to deliver the population from economic misery became a signal to the opposition BN and PN to inflame religious and racial sentiments in order to win support. This was intensified in the run-up to the election in social media and political campaigns. Consequently, a section of the population was clearly influenced by the demagoguery of some bigoted politicians, state-sponsored religious leaders and irresponsible celebrities who manipulated reality to fit their narrow and wrong narratives.

Social media platforms, such as ‘TikTok’, are filled with posts carrying heightened racial sentiments from poisoned young minds. This is a reflection of the current state of politics, which is reduced to fearmongering. Racially charged talking points are being handed down from above to the youth in order to cause disharmony amongst the different races and religious backgrounds.

However, none of the mainstream parties could offer a viable economic and social programme to attract the masses out of the clutches of racist politicians. PH exposed itself as a slave to the capitalist class and failed to fulfil most of its electoral promises due to the worsening of the capitalist economy globally. Their unwillingness to fight for the welfare of the masses resulted in disappointment and rejection, especially from those living in rural areas.

Political participation of the youth

For the first time in Malaysia, those aged 18 to 21 were eligible to cast their vote. Additionally, the previous government also passed a law to automatically allow any eligible citizen to vote without the need for a separate registration. This resulted in a very high voter turnout of over 73%, even more than the previous election in terms of the number of voters. The youth and first-time voters did not miss their chance and flooded voting booths all over the country to exercise their ‘democratic right’.

Initially, PH was confident that they would be able to win the youth votes comfortably. But as it turned out, the youth did not vote en bloc and were also split according to their areas. In the west coast states, PH was the choice for the young and first-time voters and PN dominated the east coast and northern states.

Without a good programme from any of the contesting parties, the youth were left without a clear choice in this election. Despite that, the youth and first-time voters showed enthusiasm for participating in politics, albeit just as voters. If the energy shown by the youth is not utilised by political leadership with clarity to unite the masses and struggle for better conditions for all, the right-wing populists could hijack this energy and redirect it into serving the interests of the political elites.

Hung parliament

Ironically, Barisan Nasional, with only 30 MPs, has become the ‘kingmaker’ from this election and both Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional were desperate to get their support to form a government. However, the deep divisions within the BN coalition, especially inside United Malays National Organisation, prevent them from giving support to one or the other. UMNO President, Zahid Hamidi, is trying to avoid any cooperation with the PN, which is seen as a rival coalition with a similar support base. At the same time, a section of BN leaders is calling for the resignation of Zahid and want to proceed to form a government with the PN.

Judging from the current hung-parliament situation, it is not clear whether the next government will be stable enough to last the full five-year term. Although PH has the largest number of seats, initially it could not find allies to support its prime ministerial choice and to achieve the majority needed to become the government. Furthermore, with both PH and PN claiming to have a majority, the monarchy had to play an unprecedented role by intervening in the prime ministerial selection process to try and resolve the deadlock. After four days of confusion and uncertainty, Anwar from PH was appointed as prime minister with the support of MPs from BN. However, it is still unclear if Anwar has the support of all of the BN MPs. The new opposition leader, Mahiaddin Yassin (Bersatu), from PN, is already challenging Anwar to present the names of the MPs who have supported him as the new prime minister. The opening of parliament, which is scheduled for next month, will most likely feature a challenge to Anwar from the opposition coalition.

In the name of forming a stable government, PH leader Anwar is willing to make deals with the devil (BN) itself. Throughout its existence, PH has been a political foe of BN and constantly attacked them as a corrupt organisation. Meanwhile, BN and PN pointed out the failure of the PH government to address the plight of the poor rural population. Additionally, PH was also labelled as anti-Malay and anti-Islam because of the large number (although not a majority) of non-Malay members within the coalition. However, it seems that the leadership of both PH and BN will have to set aside their differences in order to avoid further chaos and a deadlock in Parliament. Only the PN leader Mahiaddin is still stubborn and refuses to work with PH, in the hope that he could become the next PM with the help of a section of BN MPs.

If not for the newly introduced ‘anti-party hopping law’, MPs from different parties would be already jumping ship and joining different organisations freely, according to their personal political ambitions. Horse trading, deal-making and bribery are common occurrences in Malaysian politics. Ironically, this law is also helping BN to retain its members and is preventing them from joining other parties such as Bersatu, PAS or even one of the components of PH.

The mainstream political party leaders are anxious about the current situation and are trying to resolve the growing political crises as soon as possible. An unstable government will only expose the weakness and corrupt nature of the political system and will ultimately affect the population. The ruling classes can’t afford to offend people further and force them to voice their disappointment at the current state of affairs. Additionally, there is also a real danger of social tensions which could result in chaos and uncertainty in certain areas.

However, the pertaining issue at hand is that the local political crisis has escalated to a level that is difficult to fix. The flaws in the country’s economic and political system have already been exposed to the general public, who is following all the developments that are taking place closely. It will be only a matter of time before the masses start opposing and rejecting all the greedy and dishonest political representatives and start looking for an alternative.

Unstable government

Although the entire purpose of the general election was to resolve the political crisis plaguing the nation, the election itself did not yield a satisfactory result. The ongoing political crisis is deemed to continue into next year, and any kind of formation of the next government will face intense infighting and turmoil. The rival capitalist representatives in parliament will now be scheming and planning various underhand tactics to topple each other. There will be differing positions on social and economic policies which will produce conflict and instability.

The next government will not be able to address the current economic downturn, food insecurities, rising cost of living, insufficient employment, ecological crisis and unsustainable wealth distribution sufficiently to satisfy the masses. Parliamentarians and political leaders will continue to blame each other for any shortcomings and will be preoccupied with struggling for political positions. The ordinary working people on the other hand will continue to suffer from worsening economic and social conditions.

Anwar’s long-time slogan of ‘reformation’ was fully exposed as nothing but empty rhetoric during the previous PH government. Despite wielding state power and a majority in Parliament, the PH politicians, including Anwar, did not put any effort into reforming the undemocratic political or economic structure. Similarly, without a strong programme to go against the global and local capitalist powers, it is unlikely that Anwar or other PH politicians could bring forth even a meagre reform agenda. The government will be faced with deficits, uncontrollable inflation and many other systemic challenges in the coming months.

Build an alternative for the masses

After years of political instability, the Malaysian masses are waking up to the fact that the bourgeois parliamentary political system is flawed and is unable to solve their everyday issues. Also, the mainstream political parties are exposed as organisations without principle, power-hungry, greedy and will always put themselves first before the population who voted for them.

In the midst of chaos and instability in parliament, there is also a real danger that some far-right political organisations will try to sneak their way into government. As the economic crisis deepens, there will be parties who will manufacture racial and religious propaganda to create social tension in order to present themselves as the one true representative of their respective race or religion. The PN coalition, for example, will continue down this path with other more extreme right-wing formations starting to emerge.

From the experience of the last three years and with the results of this general election, it is becoming increasingly clear that the working class and the oppressed do not have representatives in the current political system. If left as it is, the corrupt and incompetent capitalist representatives dominating parliament today will continue to produce and reproduce exploitative conditions for the masses in order to safeguard the weakening capitalist system. They will resort to all kinds of tactics to divide the population under racial lines, foment disharmony and sow fear just to prevent the masses from engaging in a united struggle against the capitalist class.

The ongoing economic crisis will not allow any political representatives who wish to work within the framework of capitalism to implement a viable programme that will lift the masses out of poverty and hardship. Even a small improvement in the livelihoods of people will have to come at the cost of waging a class battle with the capitalists and their political representatives. Due to that, none of the promises from any party who are subservient to the capitalist economic system should be trusted.

The working class, youth and oppressed masses will have to form their own political force with a clear perspective to go against the agenda of the rich and the powerful. Trade unions, youth organisations, and grassroots and civil societies should come together, form a leadership to build an economic and social programme and invite the masses to join them and struggle for their future. Capitalism can no longer fulfil the people’s demands and masses throughout the world are engaged in various battles with the capitalist class and are looking for an alternative to this corrupt system.

Socialism in Malaysia

The Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) was the only left party to participate in the electoral process by fielding two candidates. Although only managed less than 1,000 votes each, they still did better than Mahathir’s far-right party Pejuang in both constituencies. This shows the potential for PSM to build an alternative left political bloc to challenge the existing capitalist parties. However, PSM has repeatedly failed to take an independent political position during elections and consistently supported the so-called ‘progressive’ PH. Despite being multi-racial, PH has shown that they are unwilling to go against their capitalist masters in order to bring adequate welfare programmes for the people. Despite this, PSM repeatedly denied the need to build an alternative left force independent from the influence of PH.

These mistakes are preventing PSM from becoming an independent force to be reckoned with within Malaysian politics. Despite getting national coverage for their participation in the election, PSM leaders have failed to use this platform effectively to bring a clear perspective to unite the masses and fight capitalism. Currently, seeing that PH is willing to forgo its principles to coalesce with BN, PSM has finally started to criticise their long-time ally. They have begun to argue for a formation of left alternatives in local politics, which is correct. However, this zigzag from one position to another without clear leadership and perspectives will only confuse their members and base further. Come the next general election, the PSM leadership could change their position once again like they did many times in the past.

If the situation in Malaysia compels the masses to engage in a struggle with capitalist forces, the current PSM leadership will not be able to lead the masses towards a viable socialist solution. They will be faced with confusion and difference of opinion from within their unconsolidated membership, who are not yet convinced of the path towards building a socialist alternative in Malaysia.

However, the ongoing economic crisis and the development of the working-class movement around the world will eventually produce conditions for left organisations to build their membership and offer leadership to the masses. There is still time for these organisations to work out a clear perspective and prepare their members and support base for the struggle ahead, similar to the approach of the CWI. In situations of crisis, the masses could develop their consciousness very rapidly and be willing to entertain new ideas which were unavailable to them before. This is a chance for socialists, revolutionaries and left organisations to present the masses with a clear path towards a conclusive victory against the capitalist class.

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November 2022