August elections more a personality contest between Anwar and Muhyiddin


Malaysia’s six state elections, scheduled for August 12, are devolving into a mano-a-mano between the 75-year-old Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his challenger for political primacy, the former prime minister and opposition leader Muhyiddin Yassin, 76.

The polls are of considerable importance in determining which way the country will go, given the dangers of ethnic nationalism and religion. Local bread and butter issues aren’t resonating in the states, which are Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Penang, Selangor, and Negeri Sembilan. Any local issue such as the less-than-desirable quality of water in Kelantan, for instance, is buried by national attention.

So with very few candidates and incumbent leaders anointed as poster boys, it appears the coming elections are a referendum on the performance of the prime minister and his government.

Although Anwar has made a show of visiting foreign capitals and slogging around Turkey and the Middle East, there are few regional or international issues at play, with the country instead seemingly at war with itself, turning inward over issues of religious and ethnic ferment given the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in an ethnically pluralistic country. He was recently embarrassed by playing up a 25-minute Zoom meeting with Elon Musk, hinting Musk might make an important investment in Malaysia, but nothing came of it. Journalists who matched the time of Musk’s tweets with his meeting with Anwar, found Musk was tweeting under the table while talking to Anwar.

In an indication of the personal ramifications of the race, Anwar’s government has brought criminal charges against Muhyiddin, with claims by Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) supporters of selective prosecution. Consequently, those within the party see the charges against the former premier, who was arrested in March on allegations of corruption and money laundering in the alleged diversion of Covid-19 funds, as simple political persecution. But at the same time, credible evidence has been raised of Muhyiddin’s complicity in the diversion of funds, which he has denied.

Perikatan Nasional believes it was robbed of the government following the 2023 national election during machinations to form a government by what they see as the treacherous defection of Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the president of the United Malays National Organization, to Pakatan Harapan to form what is called the ‘unity government’ headed by Anwar. There are plenty of individuals inside UMNO who see it the same way, posing considerable danger in the current polls from disaffected members who wouldn’t take much urging to jump from the Harapan ship.

Personal feud

Zahid, who faced 43 charges of corruption including allegations of the looting of a charity he created seemingly for no other reason than to put its funds into his pockets, has seen the charges against him recede toward obscurity as his power in Anwar’s government has grown.

With the campaign well underway despite electoral rules limiting the elapse of time for politicking, PH-BN leaders are talking about taking over Kelantan and Kedah, while PN leaders are talking about taking Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and even Penang, an indication of the bravado oozing from both camps.

However, so far there has been a void of leadership in taking up the face of both campaigns. Expect very soon, Anwar and Muhyiddin to fill the void. Anwar loves a campaign, and it also comes naturally for Muhyiddin, who is a seasoned campaigner.

To divert the allegations of criminality against him, Muhyiddin has lots of campaign ammunition. The unity government’s performance from the PN point of view has been lackluster, especially on economics, given the rising cost of living. PN will put out a simple message, “It’s more expensive to live under PMX,” the acronym now assigned to Anwar.

PH-BN have been talking about the 3Rs and trying to paint PN, particularly Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, the rural Islamist party that suddenly emerged as the biggest vote getter in the 2022 election and an integral part of Muhyiddin’s coalition, as being extremists. They have been trying to turn PAS into the ‘bogeyman’ to scare urban voters.

Anwar, given his cohabitation with UMNO and his shacking up with Zahid, has lost the ‘Reformasi’ mantra that made him an international figure, and is relying upon his Madani narrative, a concept focused on good governance, sustainable development, and racial harmony, which as yet has not resonated with the non-Malay urban communities.

There are still a lot of undecided voters out there. In addition, many just might not even turn out to vote. Both sides know that mobilizing their supporters and winning over the non-committed voters is paramount to victory.

In Penang and Selangor, Pakatan Harapan is very much on the defensive, and could be weighted down by the electorally unpopular millstone of UMNO, whose voters may abandon them for PN. Anwar is the key man to defend these states. The stability of his government is at stake.

Weaknesses into opportunities

Perikatan Nasional believes they can win Selangor, the relatively wealthy urban state surrounding Kuala Lumpur. It won’t be easy, but not impossible. Muhyiddin will need to be a key man on the PN side to have any hope of wresting victory. A win for PN would be a win for Muhyiddin in the court of public opinion and will make any forthcoming court cases look more like political persecution. It would also stun the liberal forces in a heretofore unassailable redoubt.

A good campaign from Muhyiddin would stamp his political authority once again onto the political scene, where he has maneuvered as a Malay nationalist and, for many years, a veteran politician and party wheelhorse in UMNO until it started to break apart under massive charges of corruption involving former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is now in prison.

For Anwar, the coming campaign is an opportunity for him to enhance his popularity. Anwar is a galvanic public speaker, a role he seemingly prefers over governing, and he has two weeks to talk directly to the people. However, the economy is Anwar’s Achilles heel. He will have to tell the people his solutions while on the hustings, make them believe he has got things under control in the face of daunting inflation and flagging economic growth. After eight months as prime minister, there will be more skepticism. Anwar is no longer the knight in shining armor. He is a politician like any other now.