KUALA LUMPUR – After a checkered victory in Saturday's state elections that saw strong gains by the Malay-Islamist opposition, analysts say Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim faces a daunting task in uniting an increasingly polarized nation and strengthening his nascent unity government.
Anwar's multi-coalition unity government and the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) bloc, that includes the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, retained control of three states each, as widely expected. While the PN bloc, led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, failed to alter the status quo, it did make major inroads in the government-controlled states and nearly swept all the seats on its own turf on the back of continous support from the ethnic Malay majority.
PN took 60% of the 245 state assembly seats contested, relying on the contention that Anwar and his multiethnic coalition would not protect Malays and Islam. Still, analysts said Sunday that what mattered was that Anwar had successfully kept control of the three richer and more developed states despite a strong opposition campaign.
In power for only eight months, Anwar has not yet won public confidence amid a rising cost of living and a slowing economy. Although his government has a two-thirds majority in Parliament, he was seeking to shore up support among Malay voters. While his Pakatan Harapan alliance generally held on to its political base, his ally in the government, the United Malays National Organization, suffered another routing after losing the majority of the Malay seats it contested.
“Anwar survived the election. There will still be a constant momentum to pressure UMNO but he has passed this particular hurdle. He hasn’t jumped very high over it but at least he passed through,” said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert with the University of Nottingham in Malaysia.
“Still, the country is very polarized. The use of identity politics is tearing at the country’s social fabrics. If this continues, what you will see is a potential for instability.”
Deputy Trade Minister Liew Chin Tong said the 3:3 result in the state elections has “put an end to any talks of a midway change of government.” He said PN is handicapped as it mobilized Malay anger but failed to win the support of the large Chinese and Indian minorities.
Many Malays, who account for two-thirds of Malaysia's 33 million people, view Anwar as too liberal. They fear their Islamic identity and economic privileges under a decades-old affirmative action program could be chipped away.
Before Anwar, Malaysia had had three prime ministers since 2018 as lawmakers shifted allegiance for political gains.
Anwar, 76, told a news conference late Saturday that his federal government remains stable and strong, and urged all sides to accept the people’s decision. He said all parties should close ranks and work together for peace and economic development.
But the opposition framed its gains as a protest vote against Anwar's unity government. Muhyiddin said it was a clear sign that UMNO has become irrelevant to the Malays. He said the people wanted change and that Anwar and his deputy, UMNO leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, should resign.
UMNO once led a coalition that had ruled Malaysia since the country's independence from Britain in 1957, but it was defeated in the 2018 general election amid anger over government corruption. It was again routed last year, winning only 26 parliamentary seats.
UMNO and Zahid's support was key to Anwar becoming prime minister after November's general election led to a hung Parliament. UMNO leader Zahid is, however, battling 47 graft charges and his appointment as one of Anwar's two deputies has stained Anwar's anti-corruption platform.
UMNO's poor performance in Saturday's polls will be tricky for Anwar. There are already renewed calls in UMNO for Zahid to step down, but Zahid said in a statement that the mandate won on Saturday will be the basis for the allies in the unity government to work harder to maintain their rule until the 2027 general elections.
Analysts said Anwar also has to move forward with reforms to elevate the economy, restructure his Cabinet and improve efforts to counter the opposition's religious narrative. Peninsula Malaysia is now split, with much of the northern and northeast areas dominated by the Malay-Islamist opposition while Anwar's government controls the urbane and richer central and southern zone.
“If Anwar panders to the conservative and religious forces, he will lose his own core ... namely the progressive and more liberal Malaysians. He will have to gingerly balance the pull factor from both sides," said Oh Ei Sun, from Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs.