Malaysia faces a hung parliament for the first time in its political history, as major parties failed to collect enough votes to form a new government following a fractious, closely contested general election.
The outcome has thrown the Southeast Asian nation into further political upheaval, as opposing leaders seek to build coalitions in renewed attempts to form a clear majority. Whoever wins will become Malaysia’s fourth prime minister in as many years, amid soaring inflation and a crisis in the cost of living.
With all but one parliamentary seat confirmed on Sunday morning, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s multiethnic Pakatan Harapan alliance was in the lead, having won 82 of a potential 220 seats, according to the country’s Election Commission.
Close behind is the Malay-based Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, of former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, with 73 seats. The coalition of Muhyiddin comprises an Islamist party that has publicly supported shariah or Islamic law.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, comprised of center-right political parties including the majority United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), suffered the worst upset of the night, obtaining only 30 seats.
Officials from UMNO, the party that dominated Malaysia for more than six decades after its independence from Britain, previously told CNN that the party had “a lot of work” and did not wish to regress.
Once-invincible individuals were also expelled. Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, age 97, was defeated for the first time in 53 years, losing his Langkawi island constituency seat.
The lack of a clear winner in Saturday’s election raises the potential that Malaysia’s King will intervene, as the monarch has the constitutional authority to select who holds the majority in parliament.
Sunday saw both main candidates declare victory, despite the fact that none has enough votes to form a government.
Anwar asserted in a late-night speech to his followers on Saturday that he had sufficient backing from members of parliament to form a government and that he would specify his support in a letter to the King. Muhyiddin also informed his supporters that he was in talks to create a coalition with the leaders of the Sabah and Sarawak political parties.
Since 2015, Malaysian politics have been overshadowed by the 1MDB corruption scandal, which involved the theft of billions of dollars in government funds. Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.
Prior to the election, many voters voiced a great desire to end years of political unrest. And on Saturday, large numbers of voters went to the polls, with state media claiming a turnout of 73.89 percent – despite torrential rains and flooding that hampered campaigning throughout half the country in recent weeks.
If Anwar is able to build a coalition with enough votes to form a government, it will be a remarkable comeback for the senior politician, who was released from prison in 2018 after serving time for sodomy.
In the late 1960s, while Malaysia was reeling from the protracted Communist insurgency of the Malayan Emergency, Anwar earned his name as a student activist in several Muslim youth groups in Kuala Lumpur.
1974 student protests against rural poverty led to Anwar’s incarceration for 20 months. Despite his fiery reputation, he joined the conservative United Malays National Organization (UMNO) led by Mahathir in 1982, confounding liberal allies.
The released politician was Mahathir’s heir apparent until 1998, when he was fired and charged with corruption and sodomy. The following year, he was convicted guilty, leading to massive street demonstrations.
The conviction for sodomy was overturned, but the conviction for corruption was not, preventing him from seeking for political office until a decade later.
After his political activity restriction was removed in 2008, he was slapped with additional sodomy allegations.
In 2015, following an appeal of his acquittal on these charges, he was convicted and sentenced to prison. When the conviction was maintained, human rights groups were extremely critical, claiming that it was politically motivated, which the government disputed.
Three years later, Anwar was liberated and promptly joined forces with his former political opponent Mahathir to topple the dominant Barisan party in Malaysia for the first time in its history. However, the success was short-lived, as the coalition fell apart after less than two years in office.