KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia plunged into new political turmoil on Sunday after a highly contested general election left a hanging parliament with no clear winner and a surprise wave of support for an Islamist party.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s reformist alliance made the biggest gains with 82 of the 220 parliamentary seats, but fell far short of a majority. Closely followed by the Malaysian Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, with 73 seats, of former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
The alliance led by the United Malays National Organisation, which has ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain until 2018, fared worse than in the latest polls with disruptions in a number of seats, a clear sign of rejection by Malays, who opted for Muhyiddin’s block. It only won 30 seats.
Among other major electoral losers was two-time former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who leads a separate Malaysian movement at the age of 97.
Many rural Malays, who make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million population, including large minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians, fear they will lose their rights due to increased pluralism. This, along with the corruption in UMNO, has benefited Muhyiddin’s bloc. Its ally, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, emerged as the main winner. It has more than doubled its number to 43 seats, making it the largest party in the country. PAS, which promotes Sharia law, rules three states and has a strong Islamic base.
Mahathir lost his seat on the northern island of Langkawi in a shock defeat to Muhyiddin’s bloc. Anwar, 75, won in the northern state of Perak.
“Malays who don’t like UMNO switched to PAS because they could never accept Harapan, which they saw as too liberal and accommodating for non-Malays,” said Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
The result will now be horse-trading as both Muhyiddin and Anwar rush to form the government. They will need support from two blocs on the island of Borneo that together hold 28 seats. Ironically, UMNO has now also become kingmaker.
Anwar told a press conference that he has received written support from lawmakers to get a simple majority. He said this will have to be submitted to the king of the land, who will have the final say.
“We got the majority…majority means more than 111,” he said.
Muhyiddin, meanwhile, said he had received a letter from the palace saying his bloc may have been favored to form a government over Anwar. He said he was confident he could form a stable government and is ready to cooperate with anyone except Harapan.
UMNO leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in a statement that his alliance accepted the results. He said the National Front is ready to put aside differences to ensure a stable government can be formed, but gave no further details.
The poll for two federal seats has been postponed after the death of a candidate in one constituency and bad weather in the other.
The economy and the rising cost of living were the main concerns of voters, although many are apathetic due to the political unrest that has led to three prime ministers since the 2018 polls.
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Anger over government corruption had led to UMNO’s shock defeat in 2018 against the Anwar bloc, which saw the first regime change since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. The turning point polls had raised hopes for reform as the once powerful UMNO leaders were jailed or taken to court for bribery. But political deception and defection by Muhyiddin’s party led to the collapse of the government after 22 months.
UMNO bounced back as part of a new government with Muhyiddin’s bloc, but power struggles led to continued turmoil.
Video journalist Joeal Calupitan of the Associated Press in Subang Jaya, Malaysia, contributed to this report.