Malaysia’s latest electoral test reveals a country torn between old authoritarian instincts, imbued with ethno-religious undercurrents, and aspirations for a thriving modern democracy – which tendency will triumph is yet to be determined, writes Bridget Welsh.
Earlier this month 9.8 million Malaysians across six states, three in the Malay heartland and three in the more multiracial West Coast, opted to re-elect the current state governments but empowered the Islamist ethno-nationalist opposition by giving them 49 percent of the popular vote and 146 out 245 seats being contested, a gain of 61 seats.
Analyses of the elections have focused on the rise of the conservative political right and voter rebuke of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s short tenure in office.
However, the lessons from the polls extend beyond the winners and losers. Malaysia’s August mega state polling day offers important insights to the contradictory trends of Malaysian politics.
On the one hand, the polls affirm that Malaysia’s electoral democracy is strengthening. Electoral turnover has become normalised, with peaceful transitions of power and greater embrace of new electoral alternatives. Malaysians are using their power at the polling booth to express their discontent and demands for better governance.
On the other hand, the polls showcase how a widening of political space without building democratic norms and practices can exacerbate deep-seated ethnic and ideological divisions and ironically empower non-democratic forces. The legacies of Malaysia’s more authoritarian era persist, even as its politics becomes more open and contentious.
Since 2018, Malaysia has had five different prime ministers, six different elections at the state and federal levels, different coalition governments comprised of former political opponents and greater political uncertainty.
In elections at both the state and national levels, the opposition has made significant gains. These include the two General Elections of 2018 and 2022, and separate state elections of Malacca 2021, Johor 2022, and the most recent mega state polls this month involving six states. Except for the 2021 Sarawak state elections, all of the recent polls have showcased increasing competitiveness and opposition empowerment. Four elections have led to the formation of different governments, including both the national elections of 2018 and 2022.
Malaysians have followed a similar pattern to democracies elsewhere, looking to new options for a better government and punishing those in government for failing to meet their expectations. A younger population is creating pressure for new policies and programs. The severe economic contraction and personal sacrifices of the COVID-19 pandemic have similarly reinforced greater demands.
In the August mega polls, Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan coalition was no longer the opposition, instead defending incumbency at the federal level and in three of the six states. Harapan was unable to clearly articulate a campaign message that gave voters outside of the coalition’s traditional political base a reason to re-endorse the governing coalition.
With only eight months in office, the realities of a ravished economy that contracted during the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of coherent policies weakened its electoral performance. Reliance on the persona of the prime minister rather than the deliverables of his government detracted from the campaign.
With greater democracy, the era of rallying around one political saviour in Malaysia has faded. This is especially the case for one demonised for decades as Anwar has been. Repeated shocks of changing governments have changed the perception of politicians and politics.
Politicians have moved from being heroes fighting political enemies to power seekers working with previous political enemies. Many voters are wrestling to come to terms with new political alliances and what the various coalitions stand for.
The opposition Perikatan Nasional dominated by the Islamist party PAS in collaboration with the ethno-nationalist Bersatu led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin performed well arguably in part because it was the most ‘normal’ of the coalition partnerships. The combination of conservative Islamism and Malay ultra-nationalism garnered widespread support among voters angry with socioeconomic dislocations and looking for greater security at a time of insecurity.
Perikatan tapped into long-standing notions of Malay nationalism in Malaysia’s highly ethnicised politics and built on the growing power of conservative Islamist religious institutions in Malaysia, ironically the same institutions that Anwar Ibrahim originally empowered when he was first in government as a minister from 1982-1997.
Malaysia’s contemporary political opening continues to be shaped by its past. The most obvious of these is the dominance of ethnic politics, where political mobilisation and a racialised lens are deeply embedded. Voting patterns in the August polls show a widening ethnic divide, with an estimated 73 percent of the Malay majority community voting for the opposition Perikatan and an estimated 96 percent of the minority Chinese Malaysians and estimated 87 percent of Indian Malaysians voting for the Anwar government.
The August campaign featured continued appeals to identity politics. The middle ground of political accommodation of Malaysia’s multiracial society has contracted as democracy has expanded, making the challenge of governing even more difficult. Ethnic relations are becoming increasingly frayed.
Malaysian society also has long had ideological divisions. Many liberals continue to demand greater rights and protections for vulnerable and marginalised communities. With the exceptions of new child and stalking protections, Anwar’s government has yet to fulfil many expectations for reform. The ideological divisions further contribute to a highly polarised electorate.
A particularly salient area where there is stark difference between promises and responses is corruption, as the government continues to include those with pending corruption cases within its senior ranks. This issue influenced voters in the August polls, especially those unhappy with the presence of tainted UMNO leaders in Anwar’s government.
Governments since 2018 have also continued to use unchecked legal and institutional powers to shore up their control. As Anwar Ibrahim knows from three prison sentences and 11 years in jail, corruption and other legal charges against political opponents have long been politicised. Yet there is resistance to removing authoritarian legal provisions. And their use can backfire: The opposition Perikatan was empowered in the August campaign by the arrests of its leaders in recent months.
Malaysian politics faces similar threats to other global democracies today. It has become highly toxic, fed by misinformation, conspiracy theories and emotional appeals through Tik Tok. There are signs of increasing political apathy and disengagement, as evident in the lower turnout in the August polls.
Increasingly some elites are advocating for non-democratic practices, including reducing the rights of minorities. One worrying feature is the continued refusal of the opposition to accept election results, including that of the August polls, and perpetuate a destabilising narrative against Anwar’s government. The norms to sustain democracy are being actively undermined with emotional appeals to race and religion.
At the same time, there is an embrace of stronger democracy. Many Malaysians are actively aiming to move politics toward more inclusion and greater accountability, fostering policy discussions and interfaith dialogues. Unlike in the past, there is a public counter response to anti-democratic narratives. While facing stiff resistance and making little headway so far, new parties with new narratives are entering the political fray. There is more confidence and greater open discussion of issues, fitting with a country that has become stronger because of the shocks it has endured.
This contradictory period of political transition in Malaysia has not been easy, and will continue to be challenging for leaders and ordinary Malaysians alike. Recent experience shows, however, considerable resilience on the part of society, even as leaders are struggling to cope with the difficult new realities.
Anwar Ibrahim may have survived the August polls, but Malaysia’s contradictory political trends suggest that he – and Malaysians – will face a challenging time ahead. If he opts to continue a path toward empowering more undemocratic forces and resisting meaningful reform, he will not only put his leadership in jeopardy but also place the country’s democratic space he so valiantly fought for at risk as well.
Bridget Welsh is currently Honorary Research Associate with the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia (UoNARI-M) based in Kuala Lumpur.