Malaysia’s state election stalemate belies deeper issues for the Anwar administration

Salihin Subhan, UBC, East Asia Forum

Malaysia’s August 2023 state elections have left the country’s political landscape in a precarious equilibrium. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim kept the opposition at bay, but his unity government — an alliance of political forces anchored by the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition and the former long-time ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (National Front) — lost ground, mainly in Malay-majority constituencies.

Although the spectre of the disintegration of Anwar’s governing coalition looms large, several factors—including the anti-hopping law, internal division within the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and support from key factions—make it less likely than under the previous Pakatan Harapan government.

In 2020, intra and inter-party fighting within the Pakatan Harapan coalition led to the defection of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) from the coalition as well as the departure of a group of lawmakers from the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), triggering the downfall of the first Pakatan Harapan government. This event came to be known as the ‘Sheraton move’.

To secure its future and the nation’s political landscape, the Anwar administration must confront underlying currents in Malaysian politics. At first glance, the situation today mirrors the weeks leading up to the Sheraton move. But unlike in 2020, the interests of elites within Malaysia’s unity government are aligned, making another ‘Sheraton’ unlikely. There are two main reasons for this alignment.

First is the anti-hopping law passed in 2022. The law effectively anchors individual lawmakers to their respective parties by triggering a recall election upon a member’s defection. More importantly, the law strengthens the power of party leaders, making it easier for them to clamp down on internal dissent in parliament.

UMNO is the perfect example of the anti-hopping law favouring the unity government. Many of their members would rather work with Bersatu and their fellow Perikatan Nasional allies in the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Malaysian Islamic Party). But the faction advocating for a partnership with Perikatan Nasional has been effectively hamstrung by the new legislation.

UMNO party President and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has little incentive to abandon the unity government, as recent graft accusations put his political future on uneven footing.

The second reason for the stability of the unity government is two pivotal forces — the electoral weight of East Malaysia and the constitutional role of the monarchy.

The political influence of East Malaysia — where the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (Sarawak Parties Alliance) and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (Sabah People’s Alliance) coalitions as well as the Parti Warisan Sabah (Heritage Party) receive strong support — cannot be overstated. This powerful coalition is further solidified by the ethnic diversity of Sabah and Sarawak, making it less aligned with Perikatan Nasional’s Malay-centric politics. These East Malaysian elites have little incentive to shift their support away from the unity government.

Secondly, Sultan Abdullah of Pahang, Malaysia’s monarchical head of state, has also emerged as a decisive actor in the country’s political theatre. The constitution bestows upon him the discretionary power to appoint the prime minister. This authority becomes especially salient in the event of a political deadlock — a scenario that has unfolded twice in recent history.

The current Agong is eager to see Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim see out the rest of his term, lending royal endorsement to the stability of the unity government. While Sultan Abdullah is due to step down as monarch in 2024, Sultan Ibrahim of Johor — the next in line to the position, which rotates between the heads of Malaysia’s state-based Malay monarchies —is likely to extend similar support to Anwar.

Anwar’s unity government enjoys a measure of stability, due to the anti-hopping law and the dual pillars of East Malaysian electoral influence and royal endorsement. But its long-term prospects are clouded by two insidious trends that shape public opinion in Malaysia — political disillusionment and polarisation.

The slow pace of reforms promised by the Pakatan Harapan leaders, exacerbated by a weakened coalition presence in state governments, has contributed to growing disillusionment towards party politics. This is not a new trend — a Merdeka Center opinion poll conducted during the lead up to the 2022 general election found that the top reason for vote choice was the candidate, not the political party.