Malaysia faced a hung parliament for the first time in its history as support for a conservative Islamic alliance prevented grand coalitions from winning a simple majority in general elections.
With no clear winner, political uncertainty could persist as Malaysia faces slowing economic growth and rising inflation. There have been three prime ministers in the same number of years.
The failure of the main parties to win a majority means that a combination of them will have to build a majority alliance to form a government. Malaysia’s constitutional monarch could also be involved, as he has the power to appoint as prime minister an MP he believes can command a majority.
Longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition won the most seats in Saturday’s general election, results from the Election Commission showed.
The biggest surprise came from former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who led his Perikatan Nasional bloc to a strong showing, drawing support from the incumbent government’s traditional strongholds.
Muhyiddin’s alliance includes a Malay-centric conservative party and an Islamist party that promoted sharia, or Islamic law. Race and religion are divisive issues in Malaysia, where the Muslim ethnic-Malay population is the majority and ethnic Chinese and Indians are the minorities.
Both Anwar and Muhyiddin claimed they had support to form a government, although they did not reveal which parties they had aligned with.
Muhyiddin said he hoped to conclude the talks by Sunday afternoon. His alliance is a junior partner in the ruling coalition of current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaacob and could work with them again.
Anwar said he would deliver a letter to Malaysia’s King Al-Sultan Abdullah explaining his support.
If Anwar wins the top job, it would cap a remarkable journey for a politician who has gone from heir apparent to prime minister to sodomy prisoner to the country’s leading opposition figure in 25 years.
Since 2015, Malaysian politics has been overshadowed by the 1MDB corruption scandal, in which billions of dollars were embezzled from taxpayers outside the country. It toppled 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 a febrile election four years ago with a record turnout on the key issue of corruption.
Malaysia has 222 parliamentary seats, but voting was 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 National Alliance won 73 seats. Ismail’s Barisan coalition won 30. One seat was undeclared by 21:00 GMT.
“The key result of this election is that Perikatan has successfully disrupted the two-party system,” said Adib Zalkapli, director at political consultancy Bower Group Asia.
Barisan and Pakatan have long been the main blocs in Malaysia.
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.
Meanwhile, veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad suffered his first election defeat in 53 years, in a blow that could spell the end of a seven-decade political career, losing his seat in Muhyiddin’s alliance.
A record number of Malaysians voted on Saturday, hoping to end a streak of political uncertainty that has resulted in three prime ministers amid uncertain economic times and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The political landscape has been difficult since Barisan lost the 2018 elections after ruling for 60 years since independence.
Anwar made his name as a student activist in various Muslim youth groups in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1960s as the country reeled from the protracted communist insurgency of the Malayan Emergency.
Arrested in 1974 during student protests against rural poverty, Anwar was sentenced to 20 months in prison. Despite his reputation, he later confused liberal supporters in 1982 by joining the conservative United Malays National Organization (UMNO) led by Mahathir.
The freed politician was the successor of then Prime Minister Mahathir until 1998, when he was sacked and accused of corruption and sodomy. He was found guilty the following year, a verdict that led to massive street demonstrations.
The sodomy conviction was overturned, but the corruption conviction was never overturned, barring him from running for political office until a decade later.
In 2008, after his ban on political participation was lifted, he was hit with additional sodomy charges.
After appealing his acquittal on those charges, he was again convicted and imprisoned in 2015. Human rights groups were highly critical when the verdict was confirmed, calling it politically motivated – a claim the government denied.
Anwar was released from prison in 2018 after joining old foe Mahathir and Muhyiddin to defeat Barisan for the first time in Malaysia’s history amid public anger at the government over the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal.
That coalition collapsed after 22 months in power due to infighting over Mahathir’s promise to hand over the prime ministership to Anwar. Muhyiddin briefly became prime minister, but his administration collapsed last year, paving the way for Barisan to return to power with Ismail at the helm.