Explainer: what to expect as Malaysia’s divided election enters the battle to form a government

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 20 (Reuters) – Malaysia’s political leaders sought to form a coalition government on Sunday after an election left an unprecedented hung parliament with no group claiming a majority.

Longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin each said they could form a government with support from other parties, which they did not identify. Muhyiddin said he hoped to conclude talks by Sunday afternoon, although negotiations could take days.

Here’s what’s happening and what to expect:

WHAT HAPPENED?

Anwar’s multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition won 82 seats in the lower house, short of the 112 needed for a majority, but ahead of Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional alliance with 73 and Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s Barisan Nasional with 30.

Muhyiddin’s alliance, which includes an Islamist party that has touted Sharia Islamic law for the Southeast Asian nation, emerged as a third major bloc, splitting the vote more than expected.

It penetrated the strongholds of Barisan, whose United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – long Malaysia’s dominant political force – made its worst-ever appearance.

WHAT NOW?

Analysts say the most likely government will again be a coalition of Muhyiddin’s bloc, Barisan and another group. But a minority government is possible if neither Anwar nor Muhyiddin can form a majority.

Muhyiddin, who said he is open to working with any party except Anwar’s, said on Sunday he would discuss partnerships with regional parties in the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

Anwar did not say who he would be working with. In an interview with Reuters this month, he ruled out cooperation with Muhyiddin’s and Ismail’s coalitions, citing fundamental differences.

Muhyiddin and Ismail’s coalition prioritizes the interests of the majority ethnic Malaysian, while Anwar’s is multicultural. Race and religion are divisive issues in Malaysia, where predominantly Muslim Malays make up the majority, with minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians.

THE ROLE OF THE KING

King Al-Sultan Abdullah could possibly choose the next prime minister.

The monarch has a largely ceremonial role, but the constitution empowers him to appoint a legislator as prime minister whom he believes can exercise a majority in parliament.

Malaysian kings — the position rotates between the sultans of the states — have rarely exercised that power, but they’ve gained more influence in recent years amid the political bickering.

In 2020, as veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad’s government collapsed, King Al-Sultan chose Muhyiddin as prime minister after interviewing all 222 lawmakers to decide who had the majority. When Muhyiddin’s block also collapsed, he chose Ismail.

Muhyiddin said on Sunday he had received instructions from the palace to form a government, but did not disclose what those were. Anwar said he would send a letter to the king outlining his support.

IMPLICATIONS?

Political instability is expected to continue in Malaysia, which has seen three prime ministers in as many years due to infighting.

The country is adjusting to the waning power of the UMNO and the Barisan coalition, which ruled for 60 years without interruption from independence until 2018.

The next coalition will not have a convincing majority and could be plagued by more infighting, hurting the economy.

Voters, frustrated with instability, may become angry with a new government if it includes the losing parties.

Reporting by Mei Mei Chu; Edited by A. Ananthalakshmi and William Mallard

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

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