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Malaysia election results: What you need to know

Srinivas Mazumdaru
November 19, 2022

Malaysia has been beset by political instability over the past couple of years, while the economy is struggling to recover from a pandemic-induced slowdown. Voters hope a new government can change this.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob
Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved Malaysian parliament over a month ago and called a snap general electionImage: Syaiful Redzuan/AA/picture alliance

Malaysians went to the polls on Saturday to elect a new government, over a month after Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved parliament and called a snap general election.  

More than 21 million people were eligible to vote to elect the Southeast Asian nation's fourth prime minister in four years.

Counting started once polling stations closed on Saturday, and have resulted in what appears to be a hung parliament. 

A party or coalition has to win at least 112 out of 222 parliamentary seats to secure a simple majority and form the government. However none of the major parties achieved this and they must now enter into coalition talks.

Malaysia has been beset by political instability in recent years, with the country seeing three prime ministers since the last election in 2018.

Will the vote usher in an era of political stability?

"A degree of instability is the nature of parliamentary systems that have coalition governments," said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert and professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C.

"What made Malaysia more unstable than other states was the ease with which parties or even individual MPs could defect," he pointed out.

To prevent this from happening, lawmakers are now barred from switching parties once they are voted into office.

Who are the major players?

There were three major coalitions looking to lead the next government — the long-ruling United Malays National Organization-led Barisan Nasional of the incumbent PM Ismail; the Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim; the Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, led by former PM Muhyiddin Yassin.

"Each of these parties have their bases of support and this makes it hard for the election to produce an outright winner," said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Malaysia-based independent pollster Merdeka Center.

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He added that there would be "horsetrading and negotiations" after the elections to form a coalition government.

All political actors understood the need to form a post-election coalition, forcing them to temper their speeches "to avoid making enemies among the rivals that would prevent a coalition from being formed," the expert said.

"A sort of self regulating moderation has organically emerged."

How will Mahathir impact the election?

Abuza predicted that Anwar's Pakatan Harapan alliance would likely emerge with the single largest number of votes. They did, winning 82 seats in the lower house. Muhyiddin's Perikatan Nasional alliance won 73 seats and the Barisan Nasional got 30.

Political veteran and two-time former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, led the Homeland Fighters' Party, a Malay-based outfit.

He contested the election to defend his parliamentary seat in the Langkawi resort island but lost this in a shock defeat, his first in more than half a century.

The 97-year-old politician twice held the office of premier and was named a Guinness World Record holder for being the "world's oldest current prime minister" in 2018. 

What are the key issues for Malaysians?

Political instability and economic slowdown, in addition to rising prices, were the main issues in voters' minds.

About 74% of Malaysians surveyed by the Merdeka Center said the country's biggest problems were to do with the economy.

"Like everywhere else, inflation and cost of living pressures is the top issue, followed by corruption in government, and political instability," said Ibrahim, the center's director.

This view is shared by James Chin, professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania.

"The Malaysian economy was badly damaged by the pandemic. And people are looking for the government to bring normalcy back to their lives," he said. "So political stability, economic recovery, bring normalcy back — are the underlying issues facing the elections."

How could the election impact ethnic relations?

Malaysia is a multi-racial, Muslim-majority country that is home to three major ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese and Indian.

Ethnic Malays form a majority of the nation's about 32 million people, accounting for about 60% of the population. While ethnic Chinese make up about a quarter, ethnic Indians account for around 6.5% of the population.

The communities coexist in relative peace and harmony, but there are also racial, cultural and religious tensions. The ethnic divide has been compounded by decades of policies favoring the politically dominant Malays.

"Back in 2018, when a multi-ethnic coalition defeated the UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional, there was some hope that Malaysia could move beyond its race-based party system," said Abuza.

"But identity politics are hard-wired. Malay parties couldn't accept a Chinese minister of finance or an Indian minister of justice, who ostensibly oversaw the Shariah courts. That explains the 2020 defections and betrayal of the multi-ethnic project," he noted.

Chin said in Malaysia one "can't run away from race and religion."

He stressed that the situation with regard to ethnic relations will remain the same after the elections, with tensions continuing between the Malays and non-Malays.

"Whoever forms the government will not be in a position to do anything about the affirmative action or the discriminatory policies against the non-Malays," he said, pointing out that the political costs "will be too high."

"So you will not see any deep-seated reforms and any changes to the current pattern of ethnic tensions between the major races," he underlined.

"In fact, I will argue that ethnic relations will actually become worse because Malaysia is experiencing the rise of political Islam."

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What role do young voters play in this election?

Young voters — people under 40 — make up about 60% of the country's electorate, making their votes key.

Some 6 million new voters are also eligible to take part in the election due to the voting age being lowered from 21 to 18 last year.

The influx of millions of young voters voting for the first time posed a challenge to political parties and observers alike, as it's not entirely clear who they would favor.

"Younger voters tended to favor opposition parties but their choice seems to go along ethnic lines," said Ibrahim from the Merdeka Center.

"Malay Muslim younger people, who make up about two-thirds of this segment, are in the majority in favor of the Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) coalition, while non-Muslims tend to support the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition," he underlined. 

Edited by: Shamil Shams