March 31, 2021


MALAYSIA: An uncertain election … when it happens

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the second-largest party in the lower house, announced 28 March that it would be running in the next election independently of its main coalition partner, the Bersatu party of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The decision was made unanimously, the party claims, at its annual general assembly during the weekend — although this was preceded by the sidelining of some pro-government MPs within UMNO. The decision further fragments the political landscape and makes the formation of the next government dependent on short-term political horse-trading, which further dampens the overall outlook for reform or maybe even governmental stability for the next few years. Yassin said UMNO cabinet members would remain in their position, despite the party’s stance.



UMNO and Bersatu have had an antagonistic relationship ever since Bersatu broke off from former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and the erstwhile ruling Alliance of Hope (PH) in February 2020 to form a new government with UMNO. Bersatu was formed in 2016 by UMNO members and Mahathir to bring down then-Prime Minister Najib Razak. In the next elections, UMNO candidates are not only likely to overlap with those from Bersatu, but there is a belief within the party that Bersatu is planning to supplant UMNO as the leading Malay party eventually. UMNO’s other grievances include underrepresentation in the cabinet.

UMNO denies that it will ally with PH or the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), either immediately or ahead of the next elections. However, despite the supposed unanimous support for the weekend decision, UMNO has three major factions within it and internal maneuvering may still shift its position on alliances in the coming months. Even then, UMNO is unlikely to recapture the majority at the next elections, and it will eventually need to partner with one or two middle-sized parties.

An UMNO-Anwar/PH coalition would be numerically assured of forming the next government, but it would not be a comfortable fit. UMNO’s weekend break from Bersatu was maneuvered by both party chief Zahid Hamidi and former prime minister Najib Razak. The two face serious corruption cases — Zahid for bribery and money laundering and Najib for the irregularities at 1MDB. Anwar and PH have always emphasized their reform credentials, and an UMNO partnership would be a difficult sell for PH’s traditional constituency. Also, there is substantial enmity between UMNO and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which represents the ethnic Chinese minority and believes that UMNO has historically frustrated its attempts to increase multi-ethnic representation.

PAS would be the more natural partner for UMNO since both cater to Malay votes, and do not have the political or ideological inconsistencies of an UMNO-PH coalition. But the two combined fall far short of a 112 majority. For this partnership to succeed, they would first need to successfully encroach on the areas that Bersatu won in 2018 — a major uncertainty for now — and then lure in some smaller parties. Aside from PAS, another potential beneficiary is the Sarawak Parties alliance (GPS), a regionally-focused grouping that could provide additional swing votes that decide the next government.

Malaysia must hold its next general elections before September 2023, but there is constant speculation of an early vote due to Yassin’s tenuous control. Currently, no elections are possible until the king lifts the state of emergency, which for now is scheduled to last until 1 August. But with UMNO having effectively junked Bersatu, the coalition could collapse once the state of emergency is lifted.

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