There Are No Easy Choices for Malaysians at the Ballot Box

A messy array of politicians and parties are competing to win the election—and avoid jail.

By , a Kuala Lumpur based journalist who writes about Asia for a variety of publications.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim greets supporters.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim greets supporters.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim greets supporters in Tambun, Malaysia, on Nov. 5. Malaysia will hold its 15th general election this month. Sadiq Asyraf/Getty Images

For almost half a century, Malaysian voters had a simple choice: They could opt for the National Front coalition, which had run the country since its independence in 1957, or they could pick an opposition candidate. Independent candidates were rare and usually unsuccessful.

That all ended with the 2018 elections, where voters overturned decades of control by the ruling coalition. In this year’s election, taking place on Nov. 19, voters have a bewildering range of candidates, parties, and coalitions. That includes 108 independents, the highest in the country’s history, and a constantly shifting range of alliances among established and novice parties.

In the central Kuala Lumpur district of Ampang, for example, nine candidates are completing: three independents and six party members, including one from each of the four main coalition blocs. The incumbent member for Ampang, Zuraida Kamaruddin, has held the seat since 2008, but switched parties twice in that time, most recently in May.

For almost half a century, Malaysian voters had a simple choice: They could opt for the National Front coalition, which had run the country since its independence in 1957, or they could pick an opposition candidate. Independent candidates were rare and usually unsuccessful.

That all ended with the 2018 elections, where voters overturned decades of control by the ruling coalition. In this year’s election, taking place on Nov. 19, voters have a bewildering range of candidates, parties, and coalitions. That includes 108 independents, the highest in the country’s history, and a constantly shifting range of alliances among established and novice parties.

In the central Kuala Lumpur district of Ampang, for example, nine candidates are completing: three independents and six party members, including one from each of the four main coalition blocs. The incumbent member for Ampang, Zuraida Kamaruddin, has held the seat since 2008, but switched parties twice in that time, most recently in May.

“Malaysian voters now have too many choices,” said Khoo Ying Hooi, an academic who studies human rights at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. “It is confusing and very hard for some to adapt.”

The current elections are the climax of two and a half years of cross-party defections, a period that has seen one government collapse and three different prime ministers take the helm. And that’s not even mentioning the constant bickering and power plays among rival factions within the main parties. The most notorious example of party infighting was the so-called Sheraton Move in February 2020, the culmination of a power struggle within the People’s Justice Party (PKR). That saw then-PKR Deputy President Azmin Ali defect to a rival party, taking ten other parliamentarians with him. The move led to the collapse of the coalition government, which the PKR was the lynchpin of, ushering in the present period of political turmoil.

No surprise either then that some Malaysians aren’t just confused but fed up.

“I’m not voting this time,” said Kemal, an officer at a security company in Kuala Lumpur who preferred not to use his full name. “The politicians are a bunch of frogs, jumping from one party to whichever one they think will allow them to steal the most.”

It is a sad turnaround from 2018, when a surge of anger at the scandal-ridden National Front coalition saw a near-record turnout of eligible voters producing the first opposition victory since the country’s independence. At a time when the ideal of democracy itself seemed threatened by populists and authoritarians, it was a rare moment. For once, voters really did throw the bums out. The National Front’s gerrymandering crumbled under a wave of votes.

“The 2018 election was an earthquake,” Khoo said. “People had high hopes that it would be a turning point for Malaysian politics, but they have had their hopes crushed again and again.”

The opposition government elected in 2018 lasted just 22 months before political infighting within the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition led to the resignation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir, who was age 95 when he left office, had previously spent over two decades as prime minister for the ruling coalition before stepping down in 2003. He had agreed to lead the perennially divided opposition into the 2018 elections because of his opposition to the widespread corruption surrounding his successor, Najib Razak.

As part of the deal to lead the opposition in 2018, Mahathir also agreed to make way for the formerly jailed opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Crucially though, Anwar didn’t get Mahathir to specify a date for the handover. When pressed, Mahathir refused to step aside, triggering the crisis that led to his resignation in February 2020.

Anwar of all people should have been aware that Mahathir was unlikely to live up to his promises. The two men had been at loggerheads since 1998, when mutual antipathy led Mahathir to sack Anwar from his position as deputy prime minister and later jail him on charges of sodomy. Anwar, who received a royal pardon in 2018 after the opposition’s victory, is standing as the prime ministerial candidate for the Pakatan Harapan coalition in the current election. So far, Anwar seems to have learned his lesson and has refused repeated offers of cooperation from Mahathir in the upcoming polls.

The apparently indestructible—indeed, nigh immortal—Mahathir, now age 97, is standing for Parliament as head of a brand new grouping of parties and individuals called the Gerakan Tanah Air or Homeland Movement. Mahathir said his main aim is to prevent the return to office of the “criminals” in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The UMNO is the lead member of the National Front coalition and also happens to be the party under which Mahathir himself ran during his first stint as premier.

Mahathir’s increasing dissatisfaction with his chosen successors culminated in a 2016 decision to oppose then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was embroiled in a deepening scandal over the misappropriation of billions of dollars from the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund

After being ousted in 2018, Najib was prosecuted and convicted on charges of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money laundering for his part in the 1MDB scandal, described by the U.S. Justice Department as the largest kleptocracy to date. Although estimates vary, the losses may be over $10 billion.

Najib, currently serving a 12-year sentence and still facing other 1MDB-related charges, was refused permission to leave his jail cell to campaign for reelection to his parliamentary seat. But most analysts say there is little doubt that he would win if he was allowed to stand or that if the UMNO manages to claw its way back into power that he will be released from prison.

To do that, political analyst Bridget Welsh, a fellow at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysian campus, said the UMNO is falling back on tried-and-true methods. “For the party faithful, the charges against Najib and other leaders don’t mean a thing,” so the UMNO is rallying its base and hoping for a strong turnout. In the UMNO’s case, the base is largely ethnic Malays, who make up about two-thirds of the country’s population.

To some extent, the opposition is following a similar tactic, Welsh added, reverting to the slogans of two decades ago. They are also looking to their base voters. Although the opposition has some support among Malays, its own base is dominated by Chinese and Indians, who make up the remaining one-third of voters.

For some senior UMNO leaders, the stakes are very personal. Party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also facing prosecution on corruption charges, has long been pressing hard for snap elections—even though his UMNO colleague Ismail Sabri was serving as prime minister in a parliamentary term that still had nearly a year to run, and that the annual northeast monsoon and the inevitable flooding that accompany it was about to begin.

At a National Front rally in October, Zahid made no suggestions about why he wanted elections soon. Pointing to the row of National Front leaders sharing the platform with him and then at the audience, he warned darkly that they would all face prosecution should their side lose. To prevent that happening, he said, “We must win an overwhelming victory in the coming election.”

According to pollster Ibrahim Suffian of the Merdeka Center, it is quite possible that no side will win a clear mandate, possibly not even a simple majority. That could mean an Italian-style period of backroom horse-trading among party heads after the elections.

If that occurs, the stakes will be very high, even by the fraught standards of recent Malaysian politics. By his own account, Zahid would be facing jail time if he loses. For Anwar, who spent a total of nine years in jail on what he and his supporters deem politically motivated charges, this would likely be his last chance to become premier. With everything up for grabs, he may even want to reconsider that offer of yet another pact from the wily Mahathir.

Simon Elegant is a Kuala Lumpur based journalist who writes about Asia for a variety of publications. He recently completed a novel set during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.

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