Research Note: The 15th General Elections in Malaysia: Party Polarization, Shifting Coalitions and the Hung Parliament.

AuthorMoten, Abdul Rashid

The Federation of Malaysia is comprised of 13 states: 11 in Peninsular Malaysia and two in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak). Malaysia is governed by a parliamentary constitutional monarchy at both the state and federal levels. Each of the 13 states has a unicameral State Legislative Assembly (Dewan Undangan Negeri). The federal parliament, on the other hand, has two houses: the Senate (Dewan Negara) and the directly elected House of Representatives (Dewan Rakyat). The House of Representatives and state legislatures have five-year terms; elections for the Dewan Rakyat and the state legislatures are therefore conducted at intervals not exceeding five years. Malaysia's constitutional monarchy at the federal level is elective, with the nine royal heads of the Malay states (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan, Perlis, Pahang, Perak, Selangor and Terengganu) electing among themselves the federal head of state (or the Yang di-Pertuan Agong). In practice, the seat is rotated among the nine royal houses, with each Agong meant to serve a five-year term.

Malaysia has a population of 29.8 million, with the Bumiputera forming the majority at 69.4 per cent, followed by the Chinese (23.2 per cent), Indians (6.7 per cent) and other ethnicities (0.7 per cent). (1) The Bumiputera are made up of the Malays, the Orang Asli, Sabah Bumiputra and Sarawak Bumiputra.

The Election Commission of Malaysia (EC)--established on 4 September 1957 in accordance with Article 114 of the Federal Constitution--is the sole body with the mandate to conduct elections. Malaysia uses the simple plurality or first-past-the-post system of voting introduced in 1955. Article 55(4) of the Constitution stipulates that "a general election shall be held within 60 days from the date of the dissolution" of parliament. The campaign period was reduced from 21 to 14 days in 1971, and further to seven days in 1986. In 2008, the campaign period was increased to nine days. (2) Voting is free, and the 222-member House of Representatives is elected through popular vote.

Malaysia regularly holds general elections at the state and federal levels at intervals of five years or less as constitutionally required. However, as pointed out by Kai Ostwald, elections in Malaysia "were held regularly and contested by opposition parties, but were also biased to a degree that effectively prevented the transition of power". (3) The long-dominant ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) abused state resources, denied the opposition adequate media coverage and harassed opposition candidates and their supporters. Malaysia's electoral system has always been a multiparty one. In a similar vein, Andreas Schedler characterized Malaysia's electoral system between 1957 and 2008 as "electoral authoritarianism" in which the regime violated the liberal-democratic principles of freedom and fairness. (4) Between 1974 and 2018, the BN had always secured a two-thirds majority in parliament. However, a seismic shift in Malaysian politics occurred in 2008 at the 12th General Election when the BN was denied a two-thirds majority and hence could only form the government with a simple majority. During the 13th General Election in 2013, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR, orPeople's Alliance) received 50.9 per cent of the popular vote--more than the BN's 47.4 per cent--but failed to secure a majority of seats in parliament. (5) This marked the first time since Malaysia's independence that a ruling government lost the popular vote.

The 14th General Election (GE14) was held on 9 May 2018. Voter turnout was 82.32 per cent, or 12,299,514 out of the total number of 14,940,624 registered voters. The Pakatan Harapan (PH, or Alliance of Hope) coalition, together with Parti Warisan Sabah (Sabah Heritage Party), won 121 of the 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat and formed the government, thus ending more than six decades of BN dominance led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), founded by Onn Jaffar in 1946. UMNO could be described as a nationalist party with its stated aim of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay lordship) in the BN coalition. (6) By early 2018, the BN coalition had been weakened by growing public concerns over corruption, culminating in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal and Prime Minister Najib Razak's growing unpopularity. The dominant explanatory frameworks attribute PH's success in GE14 to the role of the nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister from 1981 to 2003, who led the opposition alliance to victory. (7) Others focus on Najib's involvement in 1MDB--the world's largest kleptocracy scandal to date--and the misuse of power by political leaders. (8)

However, after 22 months, several Members of Parliament (MPs) in the 14th Parliament changed their party allegiance and the PH lost its majority, prompting Mahathir to resign as prime minister. Subsequently, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) broke ranks from the PH alliance and instead formed a new government on 29 February 2020 called Perikatan Nasional (PN, or National Alliance) with the help of BN, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS, or Malaysian Islamic Party) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS, or Sarawak Parties Alliance). Bersatu president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin became Malaysia's 8th prime minister, though his tenure was cut short when several UMNO MPs withdrew their support 18 months later. On 20 August 2021 Muhyiddin was replaced by UMNO's Ismail Sabri Yaakob as prime minister.

Thus, GE14 and subsequent developments drastically altered Malaysian politics from one dominated by a permanent coalition to one characterized by shifting alliances, demonstrating the instability of democratic institutions in Malaysia. Political instability is characterized by the tendency of a government to collapse due to conflicts among political parties, as well as the potential for the executive branch to change in the executive power, whether through constitutional or unconstitutional means. (9) In the four years since 2018, Malaysia has seen three different administrations and three different prime ministers, a record in the nation's political history. It is clear that the system--which marked a departure from the party system 1957-2018--is yet to be "institutionalized". Samuel Huntington defines institutionalization as "the process by which organizations acquire value and stability". (10) This entails establishing structures that make an institution more consistent, reliable and proficient, in the process of creating results in relation to institutional members' expectations. When an institution acquires a special status and is held in high regard in society after having met the expectations of members and the people it serves overtime, the organization has, in the words of Huntington, "acquired value and stability"--which, in this case, means that the party system is institutionalized. Parties or party coalitions that fail to retain the allegiance of their members cannot be characterized as having acquired value and stability and would not be able to maintain parliamentary representation in consecutive elections, which is essential to institutionalization. Institutionalization can be measured by party switching or "any recorded change in party affiliation on the part of a politician... holding elective office". (11)

This article examines Malaysia's 15th General Election (GE15) by comparing the electoral results and political developments to those of earlier elections, especially since 2018. The study explores how the 2022 election differed from previous elections, and assesses whether the system of coalition politics in Malaysia has been institutionalized and has acquired "value and stability". The research was conducted using a combination of archival research, media studies, observation, and informal discussions with five candidates and 22 voters.

The New Rules for GE15

On 10 October 2022, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced the dissolution of parliament, paving the way for GE15. For the first time, this election would include voters between the ages of 18 and 21, after the passage of the "Undi 18" Bill on 16 July 2019. The law also provides for automatic voter...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT