The Twists and Turns of Coalition Politics in Timor-Leste and Malaysia: Are We Moving to the Right Direction?


On 24 February, Mahathir Mohamad, the 7th prime minister of Malaysia resigned unexpectedly followed by a week-long political fiasco in the form of ‘betrayal’ with lawmakers jumping ship to one another. On 25 February, the prime minister of Timor-Leste, Taur Matan Ruak sent a letter of resignation dated 24 February to the president, Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres

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Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Taur Matan Ruak of Timor-Leste

On 24 February, Mahathir Mohamad, the 7th prime minister of Malaysia resigned unexpectedly followed by a week-long political fiasco in the form of ‘betrayal’ with lawmakers jumping ship to one another. His resignation led to the downfall of the short-lived political coalition under the Alliance of Hope or Pakatan Harapan (PH), the-then opposition coalition that took over the administration for the first time in Malaysian electoral history on 9 May 2018. Amid the turmoil, for the first time, the King consulted to all 222 lawmakers in search for a candidate for prime minister[i]. Muhyiddin Yassin was ‘unexpectedly’ appointed as the 8th prime minister on 1 March after a one-week of political struggle that ended with his party Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), joining forces with United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Islamist Party (PAS), and People’s Justice Party (PKR) faction to form a new coalition, under the name of the National Alliance or Perikatan Nasional (PN), supported by Gabungan Bersatu Sabah (GBS) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS). Critics of PN have branded the coalition a ‘backdoor government’as it was formed without an election. This formally led to the collapse of the 22-month-old PH coalition that won 121 out of 222 seats[ii].

On 25 February, the prime minister of Timor-Leste, Taur Matan Ruak sent a letter of resignation dated 24 February to the president, Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres from the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), as the small Southeast Asian country with 1.3 million population continues to face political instability after the collapse of the Alliance of Change for Progress (AMP) coalition. The collapse took place as Ruak has repeatedly failed to secure passage of a budget for 2020 after the largest party in his coalition, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), a party of independence hero Xanana Gusmao, withdrew support[iii]. Ruak was then backed by a three-party AMP coalition, consisted of the PLP, CNRT and Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (Khunto) that won 35 out of the 65 seats in the parliamentary election that was held on 12 May 2018. There has been occasional political deadlock and growing tension after the president, rejected some ministers proposed by Gusmao, over accusations of graft. At the time of writing, Gusmao, Timor-Leste’s first president and a former prime minister, announced a new six-party coalition controlling 34 seats without Ruak’s PLP that he said would prepare to form a new alternative coalition government. As he told the reporters, “It is set up to resolve the current political deadlock.”[iv] The six parties consist of CNRT (21 seats), Khunto (5 seats), Democratic Party (5 seats), and three smaller parties, the United Party for Development and Democracy, Frente Mudanca, and the Timorese Democratic Union.

Both Malaysia and Timor-Leste experienced the collapse of the pre-electoral coalition agreement that they have formed prior to the election. Interestingly, both coalitions, the PH and AMP are to some extent new as it involved different actors and political parties that work together for the first time to face the election. By coincidence, both countries held their election almost the same time in May 2018 (Malaysia on 9 May and Timor-Leste on 12 May but in the case of Timor-Leste, it is in the form of an early election as the previous minority government that was formed did not get enough support from the parliament). Both prime minister also resigned almost at the same time in February 2020 (Mahathir on 24 February and Ruak on 25 February though at the time of writing, the resignation has not been accepted by the president in the case of Ruak). Both happened at the moment when the PH is seen as a new hope in Malaysia and it was then popularly termed as, ‘New Malaysia’, as for the AMP, it is seen as a fresh break from Fretilin and CNRT’s domination by having the PLP and Khunto. While these coincidences are not directly link, but as a close observer to the both countries’ politics, I find it interesting to observe the political development of both Malaysia and Timor-Leste when it comes to why both the PH and AMP pre-electoral coalitions failed to sustain.

PH tshirt

Before moving into exploring some preliminary observation on why these two political coalitions were short-lived. Why do political parties form coalitions? Around the world, it is common for the political parties to form pre-electoral coalition or post-electoral coalition for various reasons, ranging from ensuring political stability by merging the different political ideologies i.e. the parties’policy preferences, the desire to get into office[v], to improve electoral prospects, to form a majority government, to usher countries during crisis[vi] and many more. In some cases, political parties that wish to exercise executive power are typically ‘forced’ to enter some form of coalition. Parties can either form a pre-electoral coalition or they can compete independently and form a post-electoral coalition afterwards. The literature on pre-electoral coalitions however is rather limited. Pre-electoral coalitions are more likely to form between ideologically compatible parties. They are also more likely to form when the expected coalition size is large (but not too large) and the potential coalition partners are similar in size. Finally, they are more likely to form if the party system is ideologically polarized and the electoral rules are disproportional[vii].

Coalition formation is often modeled as a cooperative game. Each party enters the game endowed with a proportion of votes that it obtained in the election, and a preferred policy position[viii]. The reasons for both Malaysia and Timor-Leste political parties to form pre-electoral coalitions are not exactly the same, their reasons are varied but it shares the commonality in term of all political actors care to some extent about getting to the office and to obtain votes by working out their incompatibility across parties. However, no matter how leader-oriented each individual party may be, they are marked by internal competition, suggesting the space for new contested political patterns to emerge. Traditionally in Timor-Leste, it does not have great history of electoral alliances and it mostly happen with small parties with the hope of attaining some power[ix]. Arguably, the AMP is the first ‘strong’ electoral coalition that is being formed. In Malaysia, coalition party system is a significant feature in the Malaysian electoral politics. More specifically, in the context of Malaysia, it is commonly in the form of two coalition party system. Political elites from different racial background play an important role on deciding the formation of coalitions. The inter-ethnic accommodation formula has been the defining and dominating feature of Malaysian politics since independence in 1957, with the National Front or Barisan Nasional (BN) as the longest standing coalition. But the latest PN formed during the recent political crisis is made up of predominantly Malay-based parties[x].  

Looking into the recent incidents of Malaysia and Timor-Leste, here are my preliminary analyses. It is not exactly a comparison study, but this writing serves as a preliminary observation of what takes place in these two countries. There are various explanations of the reasons behind these two political crises. One certain explanation is the strong feature of personalities that fundamentally shape Malaysian and Timor-Leste political contestation. For instance, in Malaysia, there is a struggle among political figures such as Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister and supposedly the 8th prime minister. Malaysian politics suffered from the entrenched system of patronage over the decades amidst these key political elites dominating the political scene. In Timor-Leste, we continue to see the significant role of strong political figures that were previously revolutionary leaders such as Gusmao, Ruak, Jose Ramos Horta, Lu Olo and Mari Alkatiri. The split in strong personalities in Timor-Leste puts the country in stake. The short-lived PH and AMP coalitions somehow shows that the prolong debate of the both countries’ leadership is still largely personality-driven, as it continues to be dominated by high-profile political elites. The ambiguous nature of the agreement that can be described as “marriage of convenience” provided an opportunity of contention for the public, who are still suspicious about the warming relations of these two bitter enemies.

Taur and Xanana
Taur Matan Ruak and Xanana Gusmão at an AMP campaign event

In what intending to be a power-sharing agreement, both the PH and AMP coalitions faced the challenge in sustaining the coalition. As the parties govern, they continued to face the issues of dividing views. The political impasse reveals the little room for compromise within the coalitions in Malaysia and Timor-Leste. At the same time, the current political deadlock also brings to another discourse of when will the door be opened for the younger generation to lead. But this is a complex issue that also has to do with the embedded strong political culture that leads by the political elites and veteran politicians. Equally interesting is that despite of the political crisis, generally Timorese and Malaysian society remains largely calm and accepts the decision from the government of a new coalition (at the time of writing, the new six-party coalition lead by Gusmao has not been confirmed to lead the new government) despite obvious frustrations, this can possibly coupled with the cautiousness that the current crisis could revive memories of the 2006 crisis in Timor-Leste and the 1969 racial conflict in Malaysia that could possibly leads to the fear of political and social instability.

For now, the real immediate test for these two countries as its politics is in transition is how they can elevate the countries’ economy to another level during this challenging period. The stakes for both major coalition in Malaysia and Timor-Leste (at the time of writing, the new six-party coalition in Timor-Leste has yet to be formally confirmed as the next government, assuming it is installed by president, the alliance will become the country’s 9th government since the restoration of independence in May 2002) are high, having promised political stability at whatever costs to the people, as there has been apparent political fatigue among the people in these two countries. As established parties increasingly steer clear of the risk of future electoral losses, ultimately, what we really needs to avoid is the populist-oriented parties that offered a chance to join coalitions.



[i] A. Ananthalakshmi, Liz Lee and Krishna N. Das. Malaysian machinations: How veteran Southeast Asia leader Mahathir Mohamad lost the plot. 9 March 2020. The Japan Times. <>

[ii] Muhyiddin’s cabinet to have 4 coordinating ministers. 9 March 2020. The Malaysian Insight. <>

[iii] Michael Sainsbury. 22 January 2020. Timor-Leste coalition collapses but leaders hang on. UCA News. <>

[iv] Timor-Leste PM quits as coalition fails. 26 February 2020. The Star. <>

[v] Georg Kirchsteiger and Clemens Puppe, On the Formation of Political Coalitions. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (JITE), 153(2). 293-319.

[vi] Coalition: A Guide for Political Parties. 2015. The National Democratic Institute & The Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights.

[vii] Sona Nadenichek Golder. 2006. Pre-Electoral Coalition Formation in Parliamentary Democracies. British Journal of Political Science. 36(2). 193-212.

[viii] Itai Sened. 1996. A Model of Coalition Formation: Theory and Evidence. The Journal of Politics. 58(2). 350-372.

[ix] David Hutt. 19 April 2018. A New Era of Political Coalitions in Timor-Leste? The Diplomat. <>

[x] Emmanuel Santa Maria Chin and Syed Jaymal Zahiid. 5 March 2020. How will Perikatan Nasional fare in the shifting sands of Malaysia’s political landscape? Pundits weigh in. The Malay Mail. <>