Malaysia’s Multi-Coalition Platter Spices Up Talk of Fragmented Parliament

The prospect that the next Malaysian government will not be formed on election night is real.

Norshahril Saat, Fulcrum

Whenever the next Malaysian general elections are held, voters will be in for a bumpier ride as coalition politics lead to more uncertainty about how the next government will shape up.

Recently, four political coalitions in Malaysia — BN (Barisan Nasional), PN (Perikatan Nasional), PH (Pakatan Harapan) and GTA (Gerakan Tanah Air)— held large-scale meetings to prepare for a possible snap election. The next general election (GE) must be held before September 2023 but several quarters within Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaacob’s party, UMNO, insist it must be held soon. Ismail, however, contends that his ruling coalition needs more time. The next GE will likely witness three- and four-cornered fights in many constituencies, with the high likelihood that no single coalition will form the government as a standalone bloc. If no coalition can win the polls outright, the composition of the next government will likely be decided post-GE after serious bargaining among political parties.

Since 2008, Malaysia’s dominant one-coalition system has effectively evolved into a two-coalition party system, with the main opposition parties’ PR (Pakatan Rakyat, or People’s Coalition) eroding BN’s dominance over time. In 2018, PH outdid BN’s winning streak, securing power for the first time. However, the PH government crumbled within two years of its historic victory and was replaced by Muhyiddin Yassin’s PN. Still, the two-coalition system remained intact for several months, since BN was subsumed under PN.

The current Malaysian government is best described as an unwieldy alliance of two coalitions: PN and BN. By August 2021, cracks in the two-coalition system were evident. PN and BN contested against each other in the recent Malacca and Johor state by-elections, despite being in an alliance at the federal level. Prime Minister Ismail Sabri campaigned on behalf of BN and not the PN government, which he leads.

The opposition PH shares some responsibility for keeping the current PN/BN government in power. In parliament, while it checks and criticises Ismail Sabri’s government, it has signed an MoU with the government to support all confidence and supply bills. Although Ismail Sabri only holds a thin two-seat majority in parliament, this MoU should prevent a repeat of how the Muhyiddin government was toppled.

In the upcoming GE, Malaysians will not witness the stability of dominant one-coalition or two-coalition political contests of the past. Voters can expect some political turbulence before the current government hands over power to the next one. Malaysia’s recently passed anti-party hopping laws will not prevent coalition-building fluidity. While individual MPs are not allowed to switch to parties other than what was originally indicated on the ballot sheet, parties can move en bloc between government and opposition. This creates more political turbulence than in the past and more uncertainty as a result.

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