- Yit Xiang Wong
Malaysia’s 15th General Election: The Maturing of a Democracy
By YIT XIANG WONG
For anyone who has been keeping up with Malaysian politics, it is well known that we have been going through tumultuous times, with multiple changes in prime ministers throughout the past three years. Political parties are internally fragmented, the economy is facing high inflationary pressures, and the monsoon season will soon strike. However, as someone who finds much importance in voting and democracy, I think there is an optimistic outlook for the coming days.
The Fragmentation of Parties
General Recap and Context
Historically, Barisan Nasional (BN) has been the dominant political coalition in Malaysia. This is relatively common in post-colonial states, where the party that managed to gain independence is likely to maintain power for a significant amount of time.
However, during the 14th General Election, BN lost its power towards the dominant opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH). There are various reasons that you can associate with their loss, but one of the key factors was the inclusion of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM), which was a group of BN politicians that separated from the ruling coalition to join the opposition.
This PH coalition was short-lived, when the 2020 political crisis in Malaysia resulted in PPBM leaving. When PPBM left, PH no longer had a parliamentary majority for their prime minister. PPBM then went on to form their own coalition, known as Perikatan Nasional (PN), and jointly ruled with the BN coalition. So at this point, we now have the PN party as the incumbent.
Many people were dissatisfied with the sudden change in government, calling it a betrayal of democracy. Hence, it was not long after that the PN prime minister was called to resign, which led to the BN coalition being able to rule. BN’s rule was no longer legitimate - hence the 15th General Election.
So why was that recap so important? Because although there has been a lot of political volatility and uncertainty, Malaysia has finally been able to somewhat break free from a historically dominant ruling party. Compared to the past when we had a dominant BN coalition, the power is now split between PN and BN. The increased range of political coalitions means that voters have a greater range of choices of candidates, indicating signs of a maturing democracy.
But I also think this raises a rather interesting issue - which is how people are likely to vote. Different election models have given significantly different outcomes for each coalition, indicating the outcome of the election race is likely to be close, and that each coalition has been able to form a decently strong voter base.
The Sabah and Sarawak Context
I just want to state that the analysis above is very uncharitable towards the context of East Malaysia. But to give an in-depth analysis of how East Malaysia will influence the election is not plausible. However, there are a few key facts to consider.
In the East Malaysian states (Sabah and Sarawak), we have seen traditionally dominant political parties in West Malaysia struggle to gain any form of traction in those regions. This means that specific Sabah and Sarawak parties are likely to be able to gain a majority of the seats in their states, and it is in the interest of the main coalitions to cater to their needs to garner greater support.
Sabah’s main party - WARISAN, has traditionally been aligned towards the PH coalition. Whereas in Sarawak, they have their own coalition known as the Sarawak Party’s Alliance (GPS), and have traditionally been aligned with the BN coalition.
Given the large number of parties that are contesting in this election, it is very likely that the coalitions that manage to win over the support of these parties are going to gain a significant advantage.
A General Overview of the Three Main Coalitions
Just in case the paragraphs above were too confusing, here’s a more general overview
Barisan Nasional (BN)
Pakatan Harapan (PH)
Perikatan Nasional (PN)
Led by Ismail Sabri
Led by Anwar Ibrahim
Led by Muhyiddin Yassin
Ismail Sabri is the current prime minister. BN has been the traditionally dominant ruling coalition.
The main opposition party for Malaysia. The PH coalition won the 14th General Election.
A new coalition led by PPBM, the party who was initially part of PH during the 14th General Election but broke away.
For the first time in Malaysian history, the minimum voting age has been lowered from 21 to 18. This has led to an increase of 5 million people being able to participate in the general elections. Youth involvement in politics has seen an increasing trend with the rise of MP Syed Saddiq, the leader of a youth political party in Malaysia.
But nevertheless, I think this creates a specific problem for election models this year. There is an entirely new voter base with no historical data on voting behaviour or turnout rates. However, there is an increasing global trend of youth participation in politics that support more progressive policies. Many credited the success of US midterm elections to the large youth voter turnout, and the success of Brazil’s recently elected president Lula can also be credited towards youth participation.
I think there are a few things that would likely occur as a result of this. Malaysian youths care about a few things. First, parties with clear policies outlined for climate change are likely to strongly benefit. Second, parties that cater towards youth employment and educational reform are certain to get some form of traction within these groups.
Strengthening of Democratic Institutions
I think a general sentiment, and one that would be understandable, is that the political instability in Malaysia could cause political fatigue, resulting in a lower turnout rate for this election. I predict that this will be the opposite. Here’s why:
Malaysia Anti Hopping Law
Prior to the general elections, parliament passed an anti-hopping bill that prevents politicians from swapping their party alliance after elections. For a country that had to change ruling coalitions due to politicians swapping parties mid-way through their tenure, this has certainly restored a lot of hope for Malaysians, who now know that their vote towards the party will matter, and that their members of parliament will continue to represent the party they voted for.
Promotion of Good Governance and Separation of Powers
Despite everything, I think Malaysian political parties are starting to form a general consensus that our democratic institutions and elections need to be transparent. Many more political candidates are transparent in asset declarations during the election. The separation of powers is also much clearer in recent times, especially after the conviction of former prime minister Najib Razak. It is in the interest of parties to ensure this is upheld, and the branches of government remain separated.
I believe the increased discourse about addressing issues such as corruption and democratic structures will urge voters to ensure that their votes are cast this election, especially after we witnessed the shortcomings of our democracy in the past three years.
So who will win?
Honestly, I have no idea. All I am certain of is that this general election will be a milestone in the democratic maturity of Malaysia, and we can only wait patiently for November 19 to see the results.