Crisis Averted for Now: Malaysia’s 15th General Election and What Lies Ahead


Malaysia’s highly anticipated 15th General Election (GE15) on 19 November 2022, originally intended as a way to end the prolonged political instability over the last two and a half years, had resulted in everything but that for the initial few days. 

Teaser Image Caption
Anwar Ibrahim, the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia.

With no single coalition winning an outright simple majority, the different coalitions – Pakatan Harapan (PH), Perikatan Nasional (PN) and Barisan Nasional (BN), as well as their counterparts from East Malaysia, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) –engaged in a merry-go-round of negotiations to achieve the necessary collective number of parliamentary seats to form a majority government.

There was no clear resolution – until the King stepped in issuing a call for a unity government. The PH, BN and GPS coalitions ultimately came together to form a federal government, and on Thursday 24 November, Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister was appointed and sworn in: Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

The Brewing Storm of PN vs BN

At the time of Parliament dissolution, the incumbent federal government was a strangely-shaped coalition comprising both PN and BN, led by a BN Prime Minister. The parties comprising PN, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), as well as those within BN, the United Malays’ National Organisation (UMNO) and its smaller component parties, had come together in March 2020, replacing the previously elected PH coalition in a series of events now referred to as the “Sheraton Move”.

The PN-BN federal government’s tenure was riddled with uncertainties of its own, cracks between the two showing as early as July 2021, when UMNO announced it was withdrawing support for PN and called for Muhyiddin Yassin to step down as Prime Minister. Muhyiddin was eventually replaced by UMNO veteran Ismail Sabri the following month. Over the subsequent year, the Bersatu-UMNO rifts continued to grow while pressure was increasingly mounted on Ismail to dissolve Parliament and hold an election.

Prime Minister Ismail eventually caved in and dissolved Parliament on 10 October 2022. Looking back, the intense demands from within UMNO to call for an election at this time of year – typically avoided due to the monsoon season and the risk of flooding across the country – was based on multiple factors.

First, UMNO had been emboldened by their stellar performance in the recent state elections within Melaka and Johor, in which they won strong majorities (21 out of 28 in Melaka and 40 out of 56 in Johor). This contributed to the perception they would perform equally well should the GE be called within the immediate future. Second, given their expectations of winning, they believed this would “restore the mandate” and they could govern with a stable majority, even defeating PN at that. Third, this went unsaid but UMNO’s President Zahid Hamidi was still embroiled in his own corruption trials. Winning a GE would have allowed him negotiating rights over his case, he may have imagined.

Zahid Hamidi
UMNO's President Zahid Hamidi.

A Subdued Campaign – but wait, TikTok    

Malaysia therefore faced GE15 with an extremely messy political backdrop, with an unprecedented number of candidates and many seats with multi-cornered fights (as many as 10 in some cases). The campaign period of 14 days was considerably muted relative to previous elections, where one commonly heard trope was that BN could not spend as lavishly as before.

Used to extravagant spending on ground machinery, door-to-door visits, flush with abundant campaign materials, BN in 2022 had less to spend after not being the main player in federal government for an extended period of time – although Ismail was Prime Minister, the largest share of Cabinet positions belonged to PN.

For all intents and purposes, PN assumed the position of incumbency. This was also felt in the lead-up to election day itself. Invoke’s national polling data indicated that PN was the coalition that gained the most ground over the months leading up to GE15, increasing its Malay support by almost 12% between September and post-nomination in November 2022 (Invoke, Forecasting GE15: voter trends and likely outcomes, November 2022).

And indeed, PN’s social media spending seems to have far exceeded that of either the other two leading coalitions. For example, in the final week of campaigning, it targeted TikTok with sophisticated videos accompanied with enticing music featuring young, attractive Malaysian Malays (read: sponsored social media influencers). On hindsight, enlisting TikTok was an extremely effective strategy. Electoral reforms in Malaysia in 2021 that saw the voting age lowered from 21 to 18, as well as automatic voter registration taking place, resulted in 6.23 million new voters being included in the electoral roll. Campaign tactics having somewhat shifted away from the stage and rallies (remote working over the pandemic years contributed too), young voters depended on social media for their political education.

BN Campaign
At a Barisan Nasional's Campaign.

The Long-Awaited GE15 Outcome

Fast-forward to election night – a sleepless one, for most Malaysians following the news – and as expected by most analysts: a hung Parliament. PH was the coalition with the largest number of seats at 82, followed by PN at 73, and BN performed at its worst ever securing only 30 seats. While it was largely expected that no single coalition would cross the magic line of 112 (as a result of one seat yet to be concluded, the majority needed is now 111), it was the rise of PN – chiefly its component party PAS – that took most by surprise.

In a north-easterly wave of sorts (crescent-shaped, uncannily enough), PN swept almost all seats in Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu. Even strongholds held by incumbents Dr Mahathir Mohamed (former Prime Minister) and Nurul Izzah Anwar (Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter, contesting on the mainland of Penang, a northern state) fell to PN. Of this, PAS won 49, close to 70%, of its coalition’s 73 seats.

While many have signaled their concerns over the rise of Islamic conservatism, Malay voters may have swung to PN for a wide possible array of factors: One, dissatisfaction with BN’s leadership splits and internal rivalries, as well as its poor leadership in the form of court-embattled Zahid Hamidi; Two, the perception of PN being a cleaner alternative against a corrupt BN and the turn therefore to a more trustworthy, religious coalition; Three, that they really had been more inclined towards a more stridently Malay-Muslim coalition – but the latter is unlikely to have been the only, or main, reason for the switch.

In the days immediately following GE15, as coalitions tussled over government formation (ultimately, about getting sufficient numbers), TikTok was filled with videos reminding Malaysians about its dark day in history: 13 May 1969, during which ethnic riots split Malays and Chinese communities. While these videos were eventually removed thanks to enforcement agencies, this added to an already tense moment as no government had yet been announced.

Initially looking like a PN-BN-GPS-GRS ensemble, the tide eventually shifted to PH having the advantage. Several incidents played an instrumental role in this. First, due to the anti-party hopping law passed in 2021, coupled with internal party declarations, all 30 UMNO MPs were obliged to move en bloc according to their leader’s decision. Second, the King met with leaders of PN and PH respectively (Muhyiddin Yassin and Anwar Ibrahim), requesting for a unity government to be formed between them. Rejected by the former, and accepted by the latter, there were allegations of PN being derhaka (treasonous). Third, BN and PH successfully inked a deal to form the Perak state government (only one of the three states holding their election simultaneously with the federal Parliament). And fourth, GPS stating they would leave the decision to the King (reversing its earlier endorsement of Muhyiddin).

Finally, despite BN vacillating between various opposing decisions, it finally issued a statement backing a “non-PN” unity government. On Thursday (five days after polling day), the King announced the appointment of Anwar Ibrahim as Prime Minister. The specific coalitions and exact numbers of Parliamentarians were not named; under the Federal Constitution, the King can appoint as Prime Minister a Parliamentarian who “in his judgment is likely to command the confidence of the majority of … that House” (Federal Constitution of Malaysia). No other conditions are stated, including the process through which the King is to come to his decision. 

Anwar 2
Malaysia's 10th Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim giving press statement.

Implications and What Lies Ahead

With the combined forces of PH (82), BN (30), GPS (23), GRS (6) and others (7), Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim will govern with 148 seats, more than a two-thirds majority of the 221 seats in total. If this arrangement can indeed last the full five-year term, this will allow him to make the serious institutional reforms the country so desperately needs, which includes legislative and policy changes. Constitutional amendments require a two-third majority in Malaysia.

Among the first things needed are to ensure a built-in mechanism into the ‘coalition of coalitions’ arrangement, to bind all supporting coalitions together for a permanent period of time. This could be done by way of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), akin to what was previously signed by former Prime Minister Ismail Sabri and the then Opposition parties. Ideally, this should also include policy commitments and concessions given to parties, transparently spelled out and made publicly available.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim will govern with 148 seats, more than a two-thirds majority of the 221 seats in total. If this arrangement can indeed last the full five-year term, this will allow him to make the serious institutional reforms the country so desperately needs, which includes legislative and policy changes.

Second, the Prime Minister will need to announce a Cabinet lineup within the next week that adequately represents the multiethnic and multireligious makeup of the country; but more realistically, being inclusive really means having to accommodate the various parties and coalitions making up what is being bandied about as a “unity government”. He has already since publicly committed to a leaner Cabinet, and to reducing its members’ salaries.

Finding a sweet spot between ideological splits between member parties and coalitions, however, will be a challenge moving forward – especially in the area of fiscal consolidation, greatly needed in a country that is facing upward pressures on its public debt to GDP ratio. On that note, the first major policy document – Budget 2023 – will have to be quickly worked on, as the previous government had only tabled, but not yet debated nor passed, it in Parliament. At the minimum, a provisional financial Bill needs to be passed to ensure civil servants’ salaries are paid out come January. A vote of confidence in Anwar as Prime Minister is also scheduled on the first day of Parliament on 19 December.

Dewan Rakyat MY
Malaysia's lower house, Dewan Rakyat is in session.

A Series of Elections in 2023

Looking ahead, election season is not quite over. The Padang Serai by-election takes place on 7 December soon, which will be Anwar’s first test. UMNO’s general assembly also in December, as well as its party election in early 2023 may also pose risks to the coalition’s stability if its President Zahid Hamidi – the chief negotiator with PH who supported cooperation – is removed from his position. Resolutions can be passed at the general assembly, and if the division chiefs are upset, they could pass one to force UMNO’s withdrawal of support.

Next, six state elections are due by between July and August 2023, three of which are currently ruled by PH (Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan) and three others by PN (Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah).

Results will depend on whether BN can consolidate itself and gain grassroots buy-in for their current co-operation with PH, since working with PH is unprecedented, coming after decades of demonizing particularly DAP as a pro-Chinese party. The new coalition could retain PH states but also gain ground in PN states, especially if cracks start to emerge within Bersatu unused to being in federal opposition. Alternately, PN may consolidate, using its existing north-eastern belt to its advantage and in fact increase its seat share in the PH mid-Peninsular belt by accusing BN-PH of having deceived voters after the GE15 outcome (campaigning against the corrupt BN that lost badly yet emerged winners to be a part of the government).

In short, there is a mountain of work ahead for all sides. There is only a sober sense of anticipation, at most relief, at the GE15 resolution. A constitutional crisis and political impasse was indeed averted, but the last few years of political instability and friction have taught Malaysians to temper their expectations.

The last week has seen a very strange but welcome phenomenon of public apologies from several parties, for any comments made in the past: from DAP to GPS in particular. It is time to heal the nation. Representing parties from varied ideologies and backgrounds, it will be fascinating to see how PH and BN will rise to the occasion to do just that.

At a PAS campaign.

Whatever the outcome, the results of GE15 point to one clear sign: PAS has strengthened. Previously with a base in the East Coast of the Peninsular, they now have a stronghold in the north and will work on increasing its influence southwards. For those believing in a more inclusive country, it is time to build back middle Malaysia. It is when the centre is weak that the fringes become more dominant, and the converse is true.

For those believing in a more inclusive country, it is time to build back middle Malaysia.
It is when the centre is weak that the fringes become more dominant, and the converse is true.

There are many challenges yet for Anwar. The previous PH administration must reflect on its failings during its 22-month stint in power, including various ministers who were unsuccessful in working alongside their public service administrators. It must also avoid the perception of being DAP (and hence Chinese)-dominant, and assure Malays their constitutional special position is not under threat.

If GE14 was about one issue – 1MDB and the fall of Najib Razak – GE15 has been a mixed bag of interconnected themes. Weak leadership, race, religion and a post-pandemic struggling economy, coupled by compromise and cooperation as begrudging solutions. Ultimately, there are no clear winners this time. A sizeable proportion of the population would have been dissatisfied no matter the outcome, having seen votes split multiple ways.

Nevertheless, with a 73.9% voter turnout, Malaysians still seem to believe in exercising their democratic right to choose their leaders every four to five years. And that is a good thing, as Malaysia continues its process towards democratic consolidation and learns to negotiate, hopefully along policy instead of patronage-based lines.

Tricia Yeoh is CEO of IDEAS (Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs), an independent public policy think tank in Malaysia. She holds PhD from the School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. She writes on national socio-economic policy and has delivered various presentations at national and international platforms.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.