Malaysia state poll results will test federal alliance’s strength, analysts say

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia state poll results will test federal alliance’s strength, analysts say Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (right) listens to his deputy, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, at an event in Selangor, Malaysia, July 7, 2023.
[BenarNews/S. Mahfuz]

Malaysia’s six state elections set for Aug. 12 will show just how durable – or fragile – is the alliance of the prime minister’s multiethnic coalition at the federal level with the Malay-centric UMNO party, analysts say.

With 245 seats being contested across a half-dozen states, close to 10 million Malaysians – nearly half of the country’s electorate – are eligible to vote in these state assembly polls, where federal coalitions will be contesting each other.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and their allies will jointly go up against former PM Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition, which includes the hardline Islamic Party PAS and Bersatu, another Malay-centric party.

To make things more interesting, current control of the six states is split down the middle. The legislatures in three of them, Negeri Sembilan, Penang and Selangor, are controlled by Pakatan, while Perikatan controls those in Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu.

A long-time watcher of Malaysian politics, Bridget Welsh, believes the status quo will be kept. She only foresees changes in margins of victory. 

“UMNO, a key strategic ally of Anwar’s government, faces the strongest electoral challenge,” Welsh, of the University of Nottingham Malaysia, told BenarNews. 

“[A] poor performance by UMNO in the state elections may lead to calls for reconsidering the party alliance with the ruling coalition.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (right) sits with his deputies, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (center) and Fadillah Yusof, after the swearing-in ceremony of the country’s new cabinet at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, Dec. 3, 2022. [Hasnoor Hussain/Pool/Reuters file photo]

Another analyst, though, sees Pakatan rethinking its alliance with UMNO, if the latter turns in a dismal performance.

“[T]he parties within Pakatan would resist any effort to retain UMNO,” Ku Hasnan Ku Halim, a senior lecturer at Tun Hussein Onn University, told BenarNews. Anwar’s Pakatan comprises three parties.

“They will not want to carry dead weight.”

Pakatan and UMNO were once fierce rivals, with the former a multi-religious, secular reform-minded group and the latter an ethnic Malay-centric, entrenched party of old political elites. Yet the two got together last November to form a government and keep out Perikatan and its hardline partner, PAS.

UMNO performing badly would mean “the Malays who used to support UMNO [are] now looking up to Bersatu and PAS because they are championing Malay rights and seen as defenders of Islam,” Ku Hasnan said. 

UMNO, which anchors the Barisan Nasional (BN), has always portrayed itself as championing the interests of the country’s ethnic Malay majority, which constitutes 70% of the population. 

Yet, UMNO fared poorly in the last two national elections, battling the perception that it is self-serving and corrupt. Its senior leader, former Prime Minister Najib Razak, was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2020, and that conviction was upheld last year.

Upstart Perikatan is aiming to take over that mantle. Some say it has succeeded because it won the second-highest number of seats in the November 2022 general election.

With UMNO now in an alliance with Pakatan, a coalition that has always fended off accusations that it doesn’t serve Malay interests, the state polls will reveal whether the so-called Malay belt feels even more alienated from Malaysia’s oldest party, analysts say.

‘The youth, we want change’

Meanwhile, Pakatan hopes its alliance with UMNO will net it more Malay support.

The fact that the alliance has given BN-UMNO as many as 108 of the 245 seats to contest, will help it push a Malay agenda, according to political analyst Lau Zhe Wei.

“It is a show of strength and [of] UMNO relevancy in the PH-BN dynamic,” Lau, of the International Islamic University, told BenarNews.

Such a move, though, could backfire as well, said another analyst, Hafidzi Razali, of political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia.

“Anwar’s Pakatan is seeking to gain support from UMNO to strengthen Malay [voters’] backing, but this approach carries the risk of potentially converting UMNO grassroots to support Perikatan Nasional,” Hafidzi, an associate director at the consultancy, told BenarNews. 

He was referring to how traditional UMNO supporters have a visceral dislike for Pakatan’s largely ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party. They see DAP as a threat to Malays.

Despite this big push from UMNO, Hafidzi sees Perikatan performing well, because it appeals to voters through Malay ethnocentrism.

“Perikatan Nasional will remain strong in Malay-majority areas, especially in sub-rural and rural demographics,” Hafidzi said.

Workers build a giant kite with the moon logo and crescent tail of the Malaysian Islamic Party PAS, at Kedai Buluh Market in poll-bound Terengganu state, Malaysia, Aug. 1, 2023. [Budi Ahmad/BenarNews]

Another issue that could swing voters in Perikatan’s favor is the filing of sedition charges in mid-July against Muhammad Sanusi Md. Nor, polls-bound Kedah’s chief minister.

This would have persuaded some people who earlier decided to sit out the polls, due to election fatigue, to now vote for Perikatan, said political analyst Syaza Shukri.

“[T]he recent charging of Kedah’s chief minister could rile up Perikatan supporters to come out strong,” Syaza, of International Islamic University Malaysia, told BenarNews.

Many people on the left and the right of the political spectrum protested the use of the colonial-era sedition law against Sanusi, and some critics called out Anwar, saying the charges were politically motivated.

Ethnicity and inclusion, and the government’s treatment of opposition leaders are the issues that will dwarf subjects like the economy or states’ development, analysts and some voters said.

For instance, PAS will continue to reign in Kelantan, like it has done for decades, despite serious developmental problems in the state, said Afiq Salleh, 29, who moved back there from Kuala Lumpur two years ago. 

Afiq said that for the last 30 years, Kelantanese have been getting dirty water in their taps due to poor town planning.

“In Kelantan, the old folks and the village people will continue to vote PAS. They do not care if they have to drink murky water from the pipe. What is important to them is that PAS is the only party that protects Islam and upholds the religion,” he told BenarNews.

“For us, the youth, we want change. But I think it will take time for the younger generation to make a difference.”

Ili Shazwani in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


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