Malaysia faced a hung parliament for the first time in its history as support for a conservative Islamist alliance prevented major coalitions from winning a simple majority in general elections.
Without a clear winner, political uncertainty could persist as Malaysia faces slowing economic growth and rising inflation. It has had three prime ministers in as many years.
If the major parties fail to secure a majority, it means that some combination of them must form a majority alliance to form a government. Malaysia’s constitutional monarch may also get involved as he has the power to appoint a legislator as prime minister whom he believes can exercise a majority.
Longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition has won the most seats in Saturday’s general election, the election commission’s results showed.
The biggest surprise came from former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who led his Perikatan Nasional bloc to a strong showing and gained support from the traditional strongholds of the incumbent government.
Muhyiddin’s alliance includes a Malaysian conservative party and an Islamist party that has touted Sharia or Islamic law. Race and religion are divisive in Malaysia, where the Muslim ethnic-Malay population is the majority and ethnic Chinese and Indians are the minorities.
Both Anwar and Muhyiddin claimed to have the support to form a government, though they did not disclose which parties they were allied with.
Muhyiddin said he hoped to conclude talks by Sunday afternoon. His alliance is a junior partner in incumbent Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s ruling coalition and could work with them again.
Anwar said he would submit a letter to Malaysia’s King Al-Sultan Abdullah outlining his support.
If Anwar lands the top job, it would mark the end of a remarkable journey for a politician who went from heir apparent to the prime minister in 25 years, to a prisoner convicted of sodomy, to the country’s leading opposition figure.
Since 2015, Malaysian politics has been overshadowed by the 1MDB corruption scandal, in which billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money were embezzled from the country. It brought down former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is now serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.
Three prime ministers have ruled the Southeast Asian country since feverish elections with record turnouts were fought over the core issue of corruption four years ago.
Malaysia has 222 seats in parliament, but polls were held for only 220 on Saturday.
The election commission said Anwar’s multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition won a total of 82 seats, while Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional alliance won 73 seats. Ismail’s Barisan coalition got 30. One seat was unannounced as of 2100 GMT.
“The main takeaway from this election is that Perikatan has successfully disrupted the two-party system,” said Adib Zalkapli, a director of political consultancy Bower Group Asia.
Barisan and Pakatan have long been Malaysia’s most important blocks.
Barisan said it accepted the people’s decision but did not admit defeat. The coalition said in a statement that it remains committed to forming a stable government.
Veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad, meanwhile, was handed his first election defeat in 53 years in a blow that could end a seven-decade political career that saw him lose his seat to Muhyiddin’s alliance.
A record number of Malaysians voted on Saturday, hoping to end a wave of political uncertainty that has led to three prime ministers amid uncertain economic times and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The political landscape has been rocky since Barisan lost the 2018 election after 60 years of rule since independence.
Anwar made a name for himself as a student activist in several Muslim youth groups in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1960s as the country reeled from the ongoing communist insurgency of the Malayan Emergency.
Anwar was arrested in 1974 during student protests against rural poverty and was sentenced to 20 months in prison. Despite his fabulous reputation, he later confused liberal supporters in 1982 by joining the conservative United Malays National Organization (UMNO) led by Mahathir.
The released politician was the heir to then Prime Minister Mahathir until 1998 when he was dismissed and charged with corruption and sodomy. The following year, he was found guilty, a verdict that sparked massive street demonstrations.
The sodomy conviction was overturned, but the corruption verdict was never lifted, leaving him unable to run for political office until ten years later.
In 2008, after his ban on political participation was lifted, he was charged with sodomy again.
After an appeal against the acquittal of those charges, he was convicted again and imprisoned in 2015. Human rights groups were highly critical when the conviction was upheld, calling it politically motivated – a claim the government denied.
Anwar was released from prison in 2018 after joining old foes Mahathir and Muhyiddin to defeat Barisan for the first time in Malaysia’s history amid public anger against the government over the billion dollar scandal of 1MDB.
That coalition collapsed after 22 months in power due to infighting over a promise by Mahathir to hand over the premiership to Anwar. Muhyiddin briefly became prime minister, but last year his government collapsed, paving the way for Barisan’s return to power with Ismail at the helm.