Author: Ömer Faruk Yildiz, Anadolu Agency
Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional is pushing for an early snap general election and preparing for electoral triumph. The coalition has recovered its swagger after a political reshuffle returned it to power — with Ismail Sabri Yaakob as the country’s 9th Prime Minister in August 2021 — and landslide victories in the Melaka and Johor state elections.
The eagerness of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the biggest constituent party of Barisan Nasional, to contest an early election signals to voters that the party has regained its trust in their leader. Widening divisions within the opposition also help further explain why UMNO is pushing Ismail Sabri to call the election this year, before the scattered opposition has a chance to recalibrate.
Surveys indicate that UMNO, which won 54 seats in 2018, is expected to succeed in its traditional constituencies and win back some constituencies currently held by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu). The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) which won 18 seats in the last election, is also likely to protect its votes and maintain a strategic alliance with UMNO. The Sarawakian parties, Sarawak Parties Alliance (Gabungan Parti or GPS) and the United Bumiputera Heritage Party (Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu or PBB), hold 31 seats in the current government and will likely remain the most popular parties in the state. Currently, GPS and PBB are part of Muhyiddin’s Pakatan Nasional coalition, but they joined while Muhyiddin was in power. The change in leadership leaves room for a possible new alliance with Ismail Sabri and UMNO.
Despite being a Malay nationalist party, it is unclear how many Malay voters Bersatu will be able to attract. Without its founding leader, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, and given Muhyiddin’s reluctance to re-join the Pakatan Harapan coalition, it is foreseeable that Bersatu will lose power. More than half of his party members consist of UMNO defectors who will not be able to win their constituencies under the Bersatu flag. The election may render Bersatu and Muhyiddin politically irrelevant should he not align himself with PAS to maintain his Pakatan Nasional alliance.
The opposition is in a more complicated position. Factional divisions have not been resolved since the toppling of Mahathir’s prime ministership. Pakatan Harapan’s unexpected victory in the 2018 elections was down to the coalescence of two former rivals, Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim — linchpins of the coalition. Pakatan Harapan and other opposition parties are now failing to comprehend voters’ new priorities in light of the devastating impact of COVID-19.
The public lost faith in Pakatan Harapan as a result of infighting during Mahathir’s government. Mahathir and Anwar’s fallout in February 2020 left the fate of Pakatan Harapan hanging in the balance. When Azmin Ali, former minister for economic affairs, and Muhyiddin defected, Pakatan Harapan’s strength was further diminished.
Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership of Pakatan Harapan has also been under internal scrutiny, including from within the youth wing of his People’s Justice Party and in the party proper. Without the People’s Justice Party leading the way, the other members of the Pakatan Harapan coalition will struggle to make themselves relevant against their election rivals.
Mahathir’s new Homeland Fighters’ Party (Pejuang) and Syed Saddiq’s Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) are seen as ‘third forces’ for the next election. While Pejuang remains relatively weak in the polls, MUDA might perform an unforeseen rise if it can capture the youth vote. The PBB may also have some impact, particularly if it rejoins the Pakatan Harapan coalition after a poor performance in the Johor state election.
Barisan Nasional has every reason to be confident in the next general election. But neither UMNO nor Ismail Sabri should take it for granted. Ismail Sabri has earned the public’s sympathy to some extent by keeping away from political spats. Malaysians will appreciate this style of leadership as long as he keeps his government committed to its COVID-19 recovery agenda, particularly regarding stability in household income.
But if Ismail Sabri yields to UMNO’s ‘court cluster’ — an array of prominent UMNO members, including former prime minister Najib Razak, facing a host of corruption charges — and becomes a yes-man to their demands, UMNO risks receiving an electoral reality check.
This next election will be pivotal for Ismail Sabri’s leadership. It is still to be determined whether he serves as an interim bureaucrat until Barisan Nasional seizes full power or as a real prime minister without being in someone else’s pocket. Whether he decided to announce a snap general election or not will help determine his legacy. His current approach involves walking a fine line to keep both sides happy. It is unknown how long that can be maintained.
As for the long wait for political stability in Malaysia, the nation should not expect too much while factional disputes and hidden agendas still lie within both coalitions.
Ömer Faruk Yildiz is a Switzerland based reporter for Anadolu Agency and writes articles on Southeast Asia for several Turkish language journals.
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