Malaysia’s graft-tainted coalition that had ruled the country for decades was losing ground to rival Malay blocs but could still return to power depending on post-election alliances, according to partial results Sunday from general elections.
Among other key election losers was two-time former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who at 97 is leading a separate Malay movement.
The alliance led by the United Malays National Organization, which ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain until 2018, suffered upsets in a number of seats in an apparent swing of support to former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Malay-based Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance.
Many rural Malays, who form two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, which include large minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians, fear they may lose their rights with greater pluralism. This, together with corruption in UMNO, has benefited Muhyiddin’s bloc, especially its ally, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, that touts Sharia. PAS rules three states and has a strong Muslim base.
The Election Commission’s website showed UMNO’s Barisan Nasional, or National Front alliance, with only 24 seats so far. Muhyiddin’s bloc is neck-and-neck with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s reformist bloc with about 60 seats each. Anwar’s bloc espouses greater pluralism and has strong support in urban areas.
Mahathir lost his seat in northern Langkawi island in a shock defeat to Muhyiddin’s bloc.
A total of 220 seats in Parliament are up for grabs in Saturday’s vote. Polling for two federal seats has been postponed after the death of a candidate in one constituency and bad weather in another.
Many surveys had put Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, in the lead, though short of winning a majority. This could spark a new crisis if rival blocs again join hands to block his ascent.
Anwar, 75, won his seat in northern Perak state.
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“Malays who don’t like UMNO swung to PAS, as they could never accept Harapan, which they perceived as too liberal and accommodating to non-Malays,” said Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
PAS leader Hadi Awang earlier told reporters that he was confident Muhyiddin’s alliance could form the government.
UMNO leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in a statement that his alliance accepted the results and is committed to ensure a stable government can be formed. In an allusion to a revival of its partnership with Muhyiddin’s bloc, Zahid said the National Front is willing to set aside differences.
With vote counting underway early Sunday, there was still no clear winner.
If Anwar’s bloc fails to win enough seats or seek alliance for a majority in Parliament, it may be sidelined again by the UMNO-Muhyiddin alliance. Both sides will have to court support from two states on Borneo island, which account for a quarter of parliamentary seats. The two states are traditionally aligned to UMNO.
The economy and rising cost of living were chief concerns for voters, though many are apathetic due to political turmoil that has led to three prime ministers since 2018 polls.
Anger over government corruption had led to UMNO’s shocking defeat in 2018 to Anwar’s bloc that saw the first regime change since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. The watershed polls had sparked hopes of reforms as once-powerful UMNO leaders were jailed or hauled to court for graft. But political guile and defections by Muhyiddin’s party led to the government’s collapse after 22 months.
UMNO bounced back as part of a new government with Muhyiddin’s bloc, but infighting led to continuous turmoil.
Initially confident of a strong victory due to a fragmented opposition, UMNO pushed incumbent caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob in October to call snap polls. But the UMNO campaign has been relatively muted as infighting and corruption charges against Zahid cast a shadow over its election promise of stability and prosperity.
Anwar was in prison during the 2018 vote on a sodomy charge that critics say was trumped up. Mahathir led the alliance’s campaign and became the world’s oldest leader at 92 after the victory. Anwar was pardoned shortly after and would have succeeded Mahathir had their government not crumbled.
His bloc has promised a reset in government policies to focus on merits and needs, rather than race, and good governance to plug billions of dollars it said was lost to corruption. Critics say the affirmative action policy that gives majority Malays privileges in business, housing and education has been abused to enrich the elites, alienate minority groups and has sparked a brain drain.
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