KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia's longest-ruling coalition said Monday it has not decided which bloc to support after weekend divisive elections left neither with enough seats to form a government on its own.
The National Front's announcement has prolonged election uncertainty. King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah extended by a day a 2 p.m. deadline for political leaders to submit their choice for prime minister and an alliance that represents a parliamentary majority.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s reformist bloc secured 82 seats in the federal Parliament, far short of the 112 needed for a simple majority The Malay nationalist alliance led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin trailed with 73 seats, but it has secured the support of blocs in two states on Borneo island that jointly hold 28 seats.
The National Front, led by the United Malays National Organization, had ruled since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957 but suffered s shocking defeat in 2018 polls to Anwar's bloc. Its plan for a strong comeback was dashed after winning only 30 seats in Saturday's election as many ethnic Malays abandoned the graft-tainted party for Muhyiddin's bloc.
Anwar told a news conference the two sides held talks earlier on a “unity government" that would focus on good governance and strengthening the economy but the National Front wanted more time to consider. He noted that his bloc was not just the biggest but also won the popular vote with over a million more than its closest rival.
“I am still very optimistic that we would be able to form a government that is more transparent, more democratic to safeguard the interest" of the people, Anwar said.
But any possible deal may be hindered by a split in the National Front.
Muhyiddin’s camp claimed that 18 National Front lawmakers are on its side. After the king extended the deadline for political parties, the National Alliance said in a statement it had already handed to the palace written oaths from more than 112 lawmakers to support Muhyiddin as the next prime minister, giving it the majority.
UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, however, said any statement by individual lawmakers supporting any bloc was invalid because a decision must be made collectively by the coalition's highest decision-making body. Anyone going against it can be sacked, he warned.
Zahid, who faces dozens of graft charges, is facing a revolt within his party amid growing calls for him to resign and take responsibility for the election losses. Some lawmakers who won have openly voiced their support for Muhyiddin's bloc but others warned reviving such a partnership may lead to a repeat of the infighting that led to political turmoil.
Hishammuddin Hussein, an UMNO vice president, issued a statement on Facebook to reiterate his refusal to support Anwar’s bloc. “I am willing to be fired by the party but will never change this firm stance,” he said.
Any deal will have to be approved by Sultan Abdullah. The king’s role is largely ceremonial in Malaysia, but he appoints the person he believes has majority support in Parliament as prime minister.
The current scenario is a replay of what happened in 2020, when Muhyiddin abandoned Anwar's ruling alliance, causing its collapse, and joined hands with UMNO to form a new government. Sultan Abdullah at the time requested written oaths from all 222 lawmakers and later interviewed them separately before picking Muhyiddin as prime minister. But his government was beset by internal rivalries and Muhyiddin resigned after 17 months.
Saturday’s election outcome stunned many Malaysians who had hoped for stability and unity after political turmoil that has seen three prime ministers since 2018 polls.
Muhyiddin’s alliance entered Saturday's polls as an underdog but enjoyed an unexpected surge of support. Its hard-line ally is the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, the biggest winner with a haul of 49 seats — more than double what it won in 2018. Known as PAS, it touts Sharia, rules three states and is now the single largest party. Its rise has stoked fears of greater Islamization in the country.
Many rural Malays, who form two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people — which includes large minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians — fear they may lose their rights with greater pluralism under Anwar’s multiethnic alliance. This, together with corruption in UMNO, has benefited Muhyiddin’s bloc.