KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s next government appeared to be leaning to the religious right as a coalition of Malay nationalists won support of an influential bloc on Sunday after tightly fought general elections failed to produce a clear winner. The nation’s king still has to approve any deal.
The unprecedented hung parliament after Saturday’s divisive polls saw the rise of the the Malay-centric Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. It stunned many Malaysians who had hoped for stability and unity after political turmoil that has seen three prime ministers since 2018 polls.
Muhyiddin’s alliance was an underdog that enjoyed an unexpected surge of votes with 73 out of 222 parliamentary seats. Its hard-line ally is the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, the biggest winner with a haul of 49 seats — more than double what it won in 2018. Known as PAS, it touts Sharia, rules three states and is now the single largest party. Its rise has stoked fears of greater Islamization in the country.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s reformist multiethnic alliance topped the race with 82 federal seats, but fell far short of the 112 needed for a majority.
In negotiations Sunday, Muhyiddin’s coalition edged closer to a victory after securing the backing of a political bloc in Sarawak, a state on Borneo island, that won 22 seats. He still needs a nod from another key player, the long-ruling United Malays National Organization, to muster a majority.
The arrangement, if confirmed by the king, means that Muhyiddin will return as prime minister.
UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said he hasn't held any talks with Muhyiddin on the formation of a government. He said candidates from his National Front alliance have signed a pledge to give him the mandate to decide on any political cooperation.
Zahid, who has come under pressure to resign after UMNO's second drubbing at the polls, warned that any members who violated party rules will be sacked and will have to vacate their parliamentary seat under a new law that bans switching of parties.
His statement came amid a split in the once-powerful alliance that had ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain until corruption scandals brought it down in 2018 . It won only 3 0 seats in its worst-ever performance as many Malays opted for Muhyiddin’s bloc, which has touted itself as a “caring, clean and stable” alternative.
Anwar reiterated Sunday that he had sufficient support from lawmakers for a simple majority but refused to divulge details until King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah gives his approval. The king’s role is largely ceremonial in Malaysia, but he appoints the person he believes has majority support in Parliament as prime minister.
“With the level of support, I am confident I will be given the chance to lead this country," he said.
The palace said in a statement that Sultan Abdullah asked political chiefs to submit their choice for prime minister and for the alliance that will be formed for a parliamentary majority by Monday. The monarch said his decision will be final as he urged Malaysians to accept the outcome to ensure a stable government.
“This election had reinforced identity politics. Given that no party has outright majority, the newly formed coalition government will need to unite the nation,” said Amir Fareed Rahim, director of strategy at public affairs at political risk consultancy KRA Group.
Many rural Malays, who form two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people — which includes large minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians — fear they may lose their rights with greater pluralism under Anwar’s alliance. This, together with corruption in UMNO, has benefited Muhyiddin’s bloc.
Among other key election losers was two-time former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who at 97 is leading a separate Malay movement. He suffered a shocking defeat to the National Alliance.
Muhyiddin took power in March 2020, defecting from Anwar’s alliance and joining hands with the UMNO-led coalition in a move that triggered the government’s collapse. The partnership was beset by infighting and he resigned after 17 months.