Analysts: August state polls will test support for Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim govt

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Analysts: August state polls will test support for Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim govt
Photo: Benar

Anwar Ibrahim’s federal coalition government will be tested next month through state-level polls, which the Election Commission on Wednesday set for Aug. 12.  

Significant losses for his coalition in the polls in six states could lead to calls for Anwar’s government to step down, analysts said.

State Assembly elections will be held in Penang, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah, Commission Chairman Abdul Ghani Salleh told a press conference in Putrajaya, the administrative capital.

These elections will reflect how the public sees Anwar’s alliance government, political analyst Syaza Shukri said. Nearly half of Malaysia’s electorate will be voting. 

“In a way, it is a crude referendum, although federal and state elections are a bit different. But it is a way to judge people’s support for the government because Malaysian politics is highly centralized anyway,” Syaza, an associate professor of political science at International Islamic University Malaysia, told BenarNews. 

“It won’t have a direct impact, but it will definitely put pressure on the federal government to listen to what the people want.”

Of the states that will hold elections next month, Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan are currently ruled by Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan and the rest are held by the opposition Perikatan Nasional, which includes the conservative and hardline Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

Supporters of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and its coalition Perikatan Nasional wave both flags during the campaign ahead of Malaysia's general election at Permatang Pauh, Penang, Malaysia, Nov.18, 2022. [Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]

After last year’s bitterly divisive national election in which no single party won a majority, Anwar’s secular Pakatan cobbled together a coalition with former foe, the Malay-centric Barisan Nasional and three other regional parties. Malaysia’s king then invited this alliance to form a government headed by Anwar.

Pakatan and Barisan decided to contest state elections together, forming an alliance seemingly at odds within itself, given Pakatan’s multi-ethnic agenda and Barisan’s pro-Malay one.

The opposition Perikatan coalition, which includes Bersatu and PAS, openly stands for Malay Muslim interests. PAS, in fact, made massive gains in the 2022 general election – the “green wave” is what analysts call it – becoming the single-largest party in the parliament. 

Syaza believes the state elections will also determine whether the wave that benefitted PAS was a one-off or not. 

“I see it as a referendum for PAS’s green wave as well, to see whether it is temporary or otherwise,” she said.

Ethnic Malays make up close to 70% of Malaysia's population, and all of them are Muslim. Ethnic Chinese comprise 22.8% of the population, and ethnic Indians 6.6%.

Another analyst, Jayum A. Jawan, said the outcome of the state elections will likely show whether ethnic Malays have become more comfortable with Anwar’s secular standing.

“Two predominantly Malay states, Kelantan and Terengganu, where Malays constitute approximately 95% of the population, as well as three other Malay-majority states, Kedah [76%], Negeri Sembilan [56%] and Selangor [61%], will serve as a significant battleground for political support,” the political scientist at Universiti Putra Malaysia told BenarNews.

“Status quo is still [maintained] at the federal level but any drop will likely lead to a call for Anwar and his unity government to go.”

Jayum said Anwar would have to convince these states’ electorates that their political interests are secure under his leadership, amid the opposition’s contention that these interests are being ignored in favor of concessions to non-Malay political partners in his government.

Since assuming office last year, Anwar has announced multiple efforts to counter the ethno-religious narrative pushed by the opposition. 

The Anwar government has not shied away from talking about sensitive issues related to race, religion, and royalty, and discrimination against non-Malays. It has also established a special task force to investigate divisive comments on these issues.

The opposition, especially PAS, has stuck to courting the majority Muslim vote alone.

“Do not let us fail to contribute something for the Islamic victory in these elections. … This is our stake in the hereafter,” PAS Deputy President Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man said Tuesday on Facebook.

State elections are also important’

The Pakatan-Barisan alliance will face a tough fight in the Malay-majority states, predicts Ku Hasnan Ku Halim of Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia.

The Anwar government, he said, has failed to solve the issue of the high cost of living and fair salaries. 

“The situation now is that he has successfully become prime minister, but people are still waiting for him to perform his duties as PM. … Anwar failed to deliver on the things promised,” said the senior lecturer from the Social Science department.

“When he speaks on the public stage, he is busy discussing corruption issues and attacks against him, making excuses.”

Additionally, some of the candidates Anwar’s alliance is planning to field are seen as progressive, something which may not sit well with the Muslim majority, Ku Hasnan said.

“Pakatan Harapan plans to nominate candidates with liberal views, emphasizing openness and urbanization, which is not favored by the Malay community,” he said.

Meanwhile, what could threaten Anwar’s coalition at the federal level is a big loss in the state election, Ku Hasnan believes. 

“There is a probability that UMNO will shift alliances at the federal level if Anwar's coalition loses badly,” he said, referring to the party that anchors Barisan Nasional.

“That’s why these state elections are also important.”


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