Why Malaysian politics is making a U-turn

After being voted out in 2018, a once-dominant coalition of parties led by Najib Razak is regaining public confidence

epa06729566 United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party president and and chairman of the Barisan National (National Front coalition), Najib Razak speaks during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 12 May 2018. Razak stepped down as UMNO party president and chairman of the Barisan National coalition on 12 May. Former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi will take over as acting president.  EPA/FAZRY ISMAIL

When the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost the 2018 general election – for the first time since Malaysia gained independence in 1957 – it seemed possible that it was finished. The coalition's primary party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), was not just hammered at the ballot box but nearly one third of its MPs then defected to the victorious Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, leaving Umno with just 39 MPs in the 222-member Parliament. State elections were held simultaneously and by the time the dust settled, the coalition was in power in only two of the country's 13 states.

Criminal charges were raised against top BN leaders, and the incoming PH administration was a seemingly solid alliance of long-standing opposition parties led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his own new Malay party, Bersatu. At the time, if you had predicted that BN could be back with a strong chance of returning to power in a general election in 2022, you would have received scornful looks. But that is exactly the position it is in now, after a stunning victory at the Melaka state assembly election last weekend in which it won 21 out of 28 seats.

This didn't happen overnight. BN's fortunes began to improve sooner than expected, winning a series of by-elections after PH's honeymoon period came to an end. Then in February 2020, the PH government collapsed; Dr Mahathir resigned from his second stint as prime minister; and many of the ruling coalition's MPs – led by Muhyiddin Yassin, also of Bersatu – formed a new government with the support of BN and a handful of other parties. But Mr Muhyiddin's government lasted only 17 months, as he struggled to command a majority in Parliament. Public disaffection with his administration's handling of the pandemic and the withdrawal of support from key MPs led to his resignation in August.

The coalition remained in place, with a senior Umno leader, Ismail Sabri, as the new Prime Minister. However, it is an increasingly unhappy alliance. Indeed, despite keeping the coalition together, Umno in March voted to cut ties with Mr Muhyiddin's Bersatu party. What would happen in the next general election when Umno and its BN allies faced off not just against PH, but also parties they have been in government with, including Bersatu? Three-way contests could be highly unpredictable. Many looked to the Melaka vote as an acid test.

In the event, BN crushed both PH – down from 15 seats to five – and Bersatu, which won two seats. If this were to be repeated across peninsular Malaysia, BN could easily form a government on its own, even without its past allies in Malaysia's two states in Borneo.

That may be a big "if", but it is still a massive turnaround either way. How and why did it happen?

The almost unanimous verdict is that voters want stability. They are heartily fed up with the machinations and "frogs" – party-hopping representatives – that have led to Malaysia having had four prime ministers in a little more than three years. Even to take the very ungenerous line of "better the devil you know", Malaysians do know BN, and it did deliver enormous progress, stability at home and certainty for outside investors for 61 years.

Voters line up on the outskirts of Melaka, Malaysia, on Saturday to vote during the state election. AP Photo
Party flags are seen in downtown Melaka ahead of the state election, which the Barisan Nasional coalition won. AP Photo

Secondly, the PH government did not deliver. In some cases it went backwards, such as the ill-conceived decision to abolish the Goods and Services Tax that led to a major hole in the public finances. Pledged reforms did not happen because, as the banker Nazir Razak wrote in his new book What's in a Name: "Mahathir audaciously admitted that some manifesto promises were made because they did not expect to win."

The Melaka election is a personal triumph for Najib Razak

This leads to the third point. PH's wild allegations, such as that Malaysia was on the verge of becoming a failed state under BN, may have succeeded as fear-mongering tactics in the 2018 election campaign. After a while, however, many began to feel that they were actually better off under BN. Numerous people who favoured PH in 2018 have told me that they thought Najib Razak, the incumbent prime minister in that historic election, would have dealt with the pandemic far more effectively had his coalition won.

Indeed, the Melaka election is a personal triumph for Mr Najib, who was tasked with heading BN's campaign, and who has managed to recover so much from his fall from office that he has probably never been more popular, and may well be the most popular politician in the country. With his new man-of-the-people "Bossku" (our boss) image, the warmth and generosity Mr Najib always conveyed personally have connected with the wider electorate triumphantly. Attempts to taint him as corrupt, wrote The Star newspaper's political analyst Joceline Tan, "failed to move many voters who believe that life was better when Najib was prime minister".

BN is aided by the fact that it has a tier of competent and non-divisive leaders such as Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and an avuncular premier in Mr Ismail, who was at one point best known for the colourful batik shirts he wore to daily news conferences, such has been his relatability among the public.

And there is evidence, too, that BN has learned from its 2018 defeat. After the Melaka polls, Mr Najib warned that there was "no room for arrogance". Having lost power once, it knows it can never take the people's trust for granted. Many voters wanted to teach BN a lesson in 2018 – but were shocked that it actually lost the election. It wouldn't be surprising if they returned to the BN colours if an election is held next year, perhaps gladdened by the thought that the grand old coalition may be a little chastened, and a little wiser.

Published: November 24, 2021, 7:00 AM