Malaysia is facing a hung parliament for the first time in history

Malaysia faced a hung parliament for the first time in its history as the support of a conservative Islamic alliance prevented grand coalitions from winning a simple majority in a general election.

With no clear winner, political uncertainty could linger as Malaysia faces slowing economic growth and rising inflation. It had three prime ministers in as many years.

The failure of the main parties to win a majority means that a combination of them would have to form a majority coalition to form a government. Malaysia’s constitutional monarch can also get involved, as he has the power to appoint as Prime Minister a lawmaker he believes may have a majority.

Longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition won the most seats in Saturday’s general election, Election Commission results showed.

The biggest surprise came from former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who led the Perikatan Nasional bloc to a strong showing, drawing support from traditional strongholds of the incumbent government.

Muhyiddin’s alliance includes a Malay-centric conservative party and an Islamist party that has touted sharia, or Islamic law. Race and religion are divisive issues in Malaysia, where the Muslim ethnic Malay population is the majority and the ethnic Chinese and Indians the minorities.

Both Anwar and Muhyiddin claimed they had the support to form a government, although they did not reveal which parties they had allied with.

Muhyiddin said he hoped to conclude discussions by Sunday afternoon. His alliance is a junior partner in current 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 detailing his support.

If Anwar wins the top job, it would be a remarkable journey for a politician who, in 25 years, has gone from heir apparent to prime minister to prisoner convicted of sodomy to the country’s leading opposition figure.

Since 2015, Malaysian politics has been overshadowed by the 1MDB corruption scandal, which led to the embezzlement of billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money out of the country. He 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 fevered election was held four years ago with a record turnout on the key issue of corruption.

Malaysia has 222 parliamentary seats, but polls were held for only 220 on Saturday.

The Election Commission reported that 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 took 30. One seat had not been declared as of 21:00 GMT.

“The key takeaway from this election is that Perikatan has successfully dismantled the two-party system,” said Adib Zalkapli, director of political consultancy Bower Group Asia.

Barisan and Pakatan have long been Malaysia’s main blocs.

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 to Muhyiddin’s alliance.

A record number of Malaysians voted on Saturday, hoping to end a wave 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 rebounded from the protracted communist insurgency of the Malaysian Emergency.

Arrested in 1974 during student protests against rural poverty, Anwar was sentenced to 20 months in prison. Despite his reputation, he later confused his liberal supporters in 1982 by joining the conservative United Malays National Organization (UMNO) under Mahathir.

The freed politician was then-Prime Minister Mahathir’s heir apparent until 1998, when he was sacked and accused of corruption and sodomy. He was found guilty the following year, a decision that led to massive street protests.

The sodomy conviction was overturned, but the corruption conviction was never overturned, preventing him from running for political office until a decade later.

In 2008, once his ban on political participation was lifted, he was hit with further sodomy charges.

After appealing his acquittal on those charges, he was convicted again and jailed 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 with old foe Mahathir and Muhyiddin to defeat Barisan for the first time in Malaysian history amid public anger at the government over the multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal.

That coalition collapsed after 22 months in power due to infighting over Mahathir’s promise to hand over the premiership to Anwar. Muhyiddin briefly became prime minister, but his government collapsed last year, paving the way for Barisan to return to power with Ismail at the helm.

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