For decades, Malaysians have been used to three things being true about their elections. There were two sides, with the sprawling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition being opposed by what was often a combination of Chinese, reformist Malay, and Islamist parties. The BN always won. But it did so with a sufficiently convincing majority of the vote that no matter what the complaints, it could not be denied that these were fiercely fought democratic elections.
That changed slightly in 2013, when the then opposition won the popular vote but not a majority in parliament; and drastically in 2018 when the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition led to the first ever defeat for the BN.
This general election on November 19, however, will be totally different to any the country has ever experienced. Firstly, the electorate has increased enormously, as nearly seven million people have been automatically registered to vote under a new law that also lowered the voting age to 18 from 21. No one can be certain for whom the young will cast their ballots, if they do so at all.
Secondly, in peninsular Malaysia, which is home to 166 of the 222 parliamentary seats, there will be a competitive three way split for the first time. BN, led by current prime minister Ismail Sabri, will be fighting PH, led by the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, but also the Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance, composed chiefly of Bersatu, the party headed by Mr Ismail’s predecessor as premier, Muhyiddin Yassin, and the Islamist party PAS.
Two state elections over the past year, in Melaka and Johor, show what can happen when the three face off against each other. In Melaka, BN won 38 per cent of the vote, and 21 out of the 28 seats in the state assembly. PH won 36 per cent of the vote, but only five seats, while PN took 24 per cent of the vote and a mere two seats. In Johor, BN won 43 per cent of the vote, which resulted in 40 out of the 56 seats available. PH won 26 per cent, and 12 seats. PN won 24 per cent, but only three seats, with the final seat going to a youth party linked to PH.
Significantly, although the approval rating of the Mr Ismail’s interim government is 38 per cent, according to the independent Merdeka Centre pollsters – and that is one per cent lower than what they found just before the 2018 election that ousted the BN for the first time – this time there is no united opposition.
Malaysians are so used to the idea that you win elections by having 50 per cent or more of the vote, that when I once told my former colleagues at the country’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies that Tony Blair won his last UK general election with 35 per cent, they almost fell off their chairs. They may be about to see, however, just how much the first past the post election system can produce results that are wildly at odds with the number of votes cast. With a three way split, if the Melaka and Johor results were reproduced nationally, BN could win an overall majority without even needing the support of its traditional allies in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak. That is unlikely. PH will expect to hold on to its urban strongholds, while PN should do well in the northern and eastern rural areas where PAS has often ruled at the state level.
Outside observers may be wondering though how it has come to pass that the BN returning to power after being convincingly booted out in 2018 is now a serious prospect. Part of the answer is that that was an exceptionally polarised election. PH supporters painted the then BN government of Najib Razak – whose economic transformation programme earned consistent praise from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – as being on a par with the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. They, on the other hand, were supposedly corruption-free reformists who would bring about an array of changes, some liberal, some populist. But they could not deliver. As PH’s prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, admitted a few months after their victory: “We made a thick manifesto with all kinds of promises” because, “actually we did not expect to win.”
That may win marks for candour, but can hardly be expected to retain the trust of voters who expected better than the constant arguments, the failure to ratify accords such as the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and what one chief executive described to me as the “witch hunt” of all corporate and government figures, no matter how talented, who had any association with the Najib government.
The PH government fell in February 2020, with one of its parties, Bersatu, then joining BN and PAS in the government headed by Mr Muhyiddin, which then changed again in August 2021 when Mr Ismail took over while presiding over essentially the same administration. Just about everyone has been in power at one point or another over the past four years, so there is no serious contender that can claim the purity of opposition. Disappointed liberals, always a tiny minority in any case, have no serious party to flock to that has not been tarnished by the compromises of government.
The political instability of the past few years may well, however, have resulted in too many compromises, notwithstanding the chaos the pandemic caused both globally and locally. What Malaysia needs – and this applies whichever coalition wins – is a return to stability. That is what the country had under the BN from 1957 to 2018, when “Who will save Malaysia?” was PH’s pitiful cry. BN supporters asked why the country needed saving from years of sterling growth, record foreign direct investment, a history of punching above its size in organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, and a series of economic and political reforms that increased prosperity and, to a degree, personal freedom.
Whichever government can return to that track – regardless of whether it is the BN, PH or PN – will be doing what the country requires. Otherwise, as many have said, Malaysia faces the dire prospect of a “lost decade”, permanently stuck in the middle income trap, and adrift from the model of a moderate, multiracial, successful and harmonious society that it once was.