Malaysian politics now a three-legged race

Rather than a dynamic duel between two coalitions, Malaysia’s politics now has three groupings in the running. All three coalitions are headed by well-known faces that do not offer much in the way of innovation or reform. Its experience and resources, make BN the best placed of the three.

 Francis E Hutchinson, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

Long characterised by ‘stability’ and excessive concentration of power, Malaysia’s politics have become fluid and unpredictable. With elite compacts and agreements hammered out behind closed doors, the country now has public plot twists worthy of a Netflix series.

Until 2018, Malaysia was ruled by Barisan Nasional (BN), a multi-ethnic coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). That year, a perfect storm of discontent swept the coalition from power as anger against then-prime minister Najib Razak’s financial wrongdoings, the phasing out of key subsidies, and the imposition of a goods and services tax reached a crescendo. Splits among the Malay elite, as well as three-way contests pitting BN against the Malaysian Islamic Party, meant that the Pakatan Harapan coalition was able to expand into Peninsular Malaysia’s rural heartland for the first time.

Malaysia’s political institutions have since been in flux. After 22 months in power, Pakatan Harapan was brought down as two groups of MPs crossed the floor and formed an alliance with BN and the Malaysian Islamic Party. Pakatan Harapan’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was succeeded by Muhyiddin Yassin as the head of the new governing coalition, Perikatan Nasional, in March 2020.

An internal power struggle within this coalition followed, between Muhyiddin’s party, Bersatu, and UMNO, which eroded his legitimacy. Following a rebuke from the King, Muhyiddin made way for the current Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob in August 2021. In a country where long prime ministerial tenures have been the norm, this level of unpredictability of the political leadership is unprecedented.

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