Can Malaysia’s New Electoral Democracy Last?

Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s tenth prime minister. Credit: Twitter @anwaribrahim

Governing Coalition: Strange Bedfellows

The question in the title is a fair one because this is what Malaysia’s regime, after more than four decades of electoral authoritarianism, amounts to today. Yet it appears frail, standing gamely against the odds.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim leads Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope – PH), the mainstay of the governing coalition. He finds favor in the urban redoubts of the Malay middle class and across the non-Malay communities but is loathed by many ordinary Malay-Muslims. Many of the latter view Anwar’s projection of pluralist tolerance and progressive values, however tepid, threatening their political ranking as “indigenes” and their privileged hold on public resources.

After last November’s general election, PH coalesced with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the latter’s subalterns in Barisan Nasional (National Front – BN) as well other groupings from East Malaysia, enabling it to form a new government. Once postured as the “protector” of the Malay-Muslim community, UMNO had long exerted dominance over the political terrain.

Today, however, UMNO is despised by many Malay-Muslims, especially young voters, for its perceived lapses in piety, made manifest in habitual corruption. Indeed, UMNO’s president today, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, while ruthless and wily, is ensnared in corruption trials. Meanwhile, he purged the party of those who confronted him, while rewarding acolytes with lucrative directorships on the boards of Malaysia’s government-linked corporations (GLCs). What is more, under Zahid’s leadership, UMNO has petitioned the king to pardon his predecessor, the former Prime Minister Najib Razak, now six months into a twelve-year prison sentence over his dealings in 1MDB.

PH also includes the Democratic Action Party (DAP). DAP struggles to forge “multiracial” branding but its leadership and constituencies are made up overwhelmingly of ethnic Chinese. In Malaysia’s polarized milieu, the party has thus long been demonized by Malay-Muslim forces, not least by UMNO. Thus, for UMNO to coalesce today with the DAP heightens perceptions across the Malay-Muslim community of the party’s hypocrisy and unquenchable lust for state patronage.

The governing coalition, in the disparateness of its make-up, frames itself as a “unity government”. But its banner of pluralist tolerance thrusts a red flag in the face of the exclusivist Islamist forces that gather against it. Indeed, for the first time in Malaysia’s political record, the parliamentary opposition is composed solely of Malay-Muslim elements, save a once feisty, but present-day zombie party, Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan).

Formidable Opposition

The opposition coalition, badged as Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance – PN), is spearheaded by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party – PAS). Its leader, Haji Abdul Hadi Awang, hails God’s formation of “race”, for it is through Malay identity that Islam must first be entrenched, then disseminated across the land.

Today, PAS is the biggest party in parliament, holding nearly a quarter of its seats. In celebrating his party’s rise, Hadi taunted UMNO for having “lost its fangs”. In patrolling ‘racial’ boundaries, he condemned the DAP for its recruitment, however scant, of Malay-Muslim candidates. In colorful phrasing, Hadi vilified the DAP for its “feces covered hands” which, in peddling secular ideology, “goes against Islam”.

PAS’s coalition partner is Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party – Bersatu). While initially an offshoot of UMNO, Bersatu has taken on a deeper Islamist hue. Its president, Muhyiddin Yassin, in close collaboration with PAS, has carved out sizeable support in the Malay-Muslim community, even among some UMNO parliamentarians.

Thus, right after November’s election, on the strength of PN’s seats in parliament and its support at the time from parties in East Malaysia, Muhyiddin offered himself as prime minister to the king. But he was spurned, for the king demanded a more broadly representative government. Along with UMNO, this tipped the East Malaysia parties back to PH, enabling it to forge its ruling coalition.

Muhyiddin, in claiming to have had the numbers, still broods over the opaqueness of this outcome. He has seemed even to intimate impatience with the monarch and discontents over electoral procedures. Meanwhile, Hadi has gone further, recently defying a ban imposed by the Sultan of Terengganu, his home state, on preaching political themes in local mosques. He rebuffed the Sultan of Johor who has called for “stability”, acting on PN’s perceived duty to displace the “unity government”. This questioning of royal prerogatives and parliamentary processes, though nascent, can, if it germinates, cast doubt across the Malay heartland over the legitimacy of Malaysia’s most loadbearing institutions.

The PH-PN Derby

PN finds fertile ground on which to trod. Polling conducted by the Merdeka Centre last year revealed that among potential first-time voters aged between 18 and 25, some 82% agreed that the Quran should replace Malaysia’s constitution and that an Islamic caliphate should supplant the Malaysian Federation. As many as 62% also heeded Hadi’s call that Muslims should only vote for Muslim candidates, lest, he has warned, they go to hell. 

In this milieu, the PH-centered government faces a PN that seems destined to rise. It thus deploys state power in partisan ways. For example, prior to UMNO’s internal party election in March, Zahid suspended contestation for his presidential post. The Registrar of Societies, a regulatory agency, ruled that this was unlawful. But the Home Minister, Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, the secretary general of Pakatan, who had himself lost his parliamentary seat in the general election – necessitating his appointment to the Senate in order to hold a cabinet position – wielded state power in order to overrule the Registrar.

In addition, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has brought bribery charges against Muhyiddin. It also seized Muhyiddin’s passport – after returning Zahid’s passport, even as the latter’s corruption trials continue. The MACC’s case stems from Muhyiddin’s earlier stint as prime minister when he oversaw aid packages issued to struggling businesses during the pandemic. Muhyiddin has denounced the charges as “an insult”.

UMNO leaders also ruminate over Hadi’s transgressions, specifically, involving money given to voters in Terengganu during the last election. Hadi defended these disbursements as “charity”. Zahid retorted that for Hadi this may be charity, for others it is corruption. However, as Hadi is so spiritually revered by many Malay-Muslims that the government dares not confront him more squarely.

More broadly, in terms of civil liberties, though PH declared in its electoral manifesto that it would repeal the country’s onerous Printing Presses and Publications Act, Saifuddin Nasution, the home minister, intones now that the act is still needed. The Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act and other restrictive laws are less readily invoked today, but they remain on the books and in tactical use. Meanwhile, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Azalina Othman, seems less intent on reforms than in pursuing UMNO’s vendetta against Tommy Thomas, the former attorney general whose office had brought the charges against Najib.

Making Sense of the Chaos

So, given the fissiparousness of the PH-centered government and the semi-loyalty of the opposition PN, in what sense can Malaysia be understood as even an electoral democracy today? To be sure, alarm bells ring over the partisan usage of state power and the limits imposed on civil liberties, though we note that Anwar recently vetoed the appointment of an UMNO favorite, advanced for the chair of a state development agency in Kedah.  

Further, although civil liberties are still limited, journalists and NGOs report that controls are less stringently enforced than they once were. More signally, on the electoral dimension, Malaysia has now experienced two turnovers, with PH coming to power in 2018, then again in 2022.

Hence, in its 2022 Democracy Index, the Economist Intelligence Unit rated Malaysia as a “flawed democracy”, its conceptual avatar of electoral democracy. In this configuration, “countries…have free and fair elections and, even if there are problems…basic civil liberties are respected”.

Malaysia’s regime has thus transitioned from electoral authoritarianism to electoral democracy. Can it complete this progress to full democracy?

Barriers persist on two planes. Whatever their stripe, political parties, once in power, resist the deep reforms in governance and the freeing up of controls over civil liberties that might test their incumbency. More fundamentally, the Malay-Muslim community remains unshakeable in its demands over political and cultural privileging. This militates strongly against the equality that liberal democracy requires.

But can Malaysia perpetuate even the electoral democracy that it has attained? Many observers are doubtful, espying elite-level fractiousness, mass-level anxieties, fraying institutions, and harrowing geostrategic pressures. The governing coalition between PH and UMNO remains tense, so grasps at thin pluralist cover. The opposition PH coalition that fuses PAS and Bersatu pulses with Islamist vibrancy. Yet, despite the setback that Malaysia’s electoral democracy may face, let us recall some 66 years during which its political parties have vigorously contested elections. Only in one instance, more than half-a-century ago, has ethnic violence been instigated. Never has military intervention been seriously contemplated. Today, the country’s party system is far more competitive and the political regime more open. Yet party formation and regular elections provide the vehicles and avenues by which to compete for state power, even if inflamed today by pluralism and Islamism. In this context, there are reasons for thinking that Malaysia’s electoral democracy will last.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • William Case is Professor and Head of School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. He was previously Professor of Southeast Asian politics and Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC) at City University of Hong Kong; Associate Professor in the Department of International Business and Asian Studies at Griffith University (Brisbane, Australia); Lecturer at University College, University of New South Wales, Australian Defense Force Academy; and Adjunct Lecturer at MARA University (Institute) of Technology (Shah Alam, Malaysia).