Crowded Malaysian election field adds risk of no clear majority

Malaysia’s general election will witness more than 210 multi-cornered contests for parliamentary seats, raising the possibility that fresh alliances would be needed to form a new government.

More than 940 candidates will vie for 222 seats in the Nov. 19 vote, with only nine one-to-one contests, according to data from the Election Commission. Several constituencies will see five-cornered fights, with the urban seat of Batu in Kuala Lumpur is set for a contest between 10 contenders, the highest in the country.

A crowded field involving the three main coalitions, tens of parties and a record 108 independent candidates will add to the challenges posed by the influx of millions of young voters who are voting for the first time. There is little data on their loyalties, making it difficult to gauge if Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s United Malays National Organisation, a key member of the Barisan Nasional alliance, will garner more votes from the ethnic Malay majority.

“UMNO’s job has become a lot harder with the addition of younger voters who are not fixated on political parties,” said Ibrahim Suffian, co-founder of the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. The emergence of new nationalist coalition Perikatan Nasional “is adding to UMNO’s problems as it is providing the same guarantee as UMNO — to protect Malay rights,” he said.

Perikatan Nasional could draw votes away from UMNO, and benefit Pakatan Harapan, the main opposition alliance led by 75-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, he said.

UMNO is seeking to strengthen its position following a run of successful local polls. It leads the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has governed as part of a fragile alliance since a political crisis erupted in 2020. BN is competing against multiracial Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional, led by former premier Muhyiddin Yassin.

The Pakatan Harapan coalition has pledged to slash living costs. It’s fielding the most number of candidates at 206, followed by Barisan Nasional at 178 and Perikatan Nasional at 149, according to the Election Commission.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 97, is also in the fray, leading a separate coalition comprising pro-Malay parties that oppose UMNO. He faces a five-cornered fight to retain his Langkawi parliamentary seat.

Approval Ratings

While a national vote wasn’t due until September next year, UMNO leaders called an early election to capitalize on a fragmented opposition and redeem itself following a shock defeat in 2018 after roughly six decades in power. UMNO returned to the ruling bloc two years later after the collapse of Mahathir’s government.

Even so, UMNO is unlikely to get a strong parliamentary majority and its Barisan Nasional coalition will have to form alliances with other parties, analysts said. 

A survey by the Merdeka Center showed on Friday that voting inclination toward Barisan Nasional fell to 24% in October from 27% in September. Ismail’s approval rating dropped after he called the snap election, with voters indicating they want the government to address the rising cost of living worsened by a falling currency.

Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional saw voter preference rise to 13%, a gain of 4% over September, while Anwar’s grouping was little changed at 26%.

“At this point in time, with the lower-than-expected level of Malay voter support for BN, it is possible to imagine that no single coalition will attain a large enough plurality” to form a government on their own, according to the Merdeka Center.

The trends may not hold until polling day as 31% of the 1,209 respondents said they had no preference or were still undecided. More than 21 million Malaysians are eligible to cast ballots in the national vote, while the states of Perak, Pahang and Perlis will also elect new representatives for their assemblies. – BLOOMBERG