Two rival blocs are fighting to form Malaysia’s next government

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The two biggest winners of Malaysia’s general election are competing on Sunday to forge coalitions to form a government after a hotly contested general election failed to produce a clear winner, with the nation’s king the final arbiter.

The unprecedented hung Parliament after Saturday’s divisive polls saw the rise of Malaysian nationalists and plunged the country into a new crisis, staggering many Malaysians hoping for stability and unity after political turmoil that has seen three prime ministers since the 2018 election.

The Malay-centric Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, was an underdog enjoying an unexpected surge in support with 73 of the 222 parliamentary seats.

Its hardline ally the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party was the biggest winner with 49 parliamentary seats — more than double what it won in 2018. PAS, which promotes Sharia and rules three states, is now the single largest party and the rise has spark fears of greater Islamization in the country.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Reform Alliance topped the race with 82 federal seats, but fell well short of the 112 needed for a majority.

The United Malays National Organisation-led coalition, which ruled Malaysia from independence from Britain until 2018, was the biggest loser. It won only 30 seats in its worst performance as many Malaysians opted for Muhyiddin’s bloc, which has touted itself as a “caring, clean and stable” alternative.

“These elections have strengthened identity politics. Since no party has an absolute majority, the newly formed coalition government will need to unite the nation,” said Amir Fareed Rahim, director of public affairs strategy at political risk consultancy KRA Group.

Many rural Malays, who make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people – which includes large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities – fear they may lose their rights to greater pluralism under Anwar’s alliance. This, along with corruption in UMNO, has benefited Muhyiddin’s bloc.

Other key losers in the election included two-time former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who at 97 is leading a separate Malaysian movement. It suffered a shocking defeat from the National Alliance bloc.

Both Anwar and Muhyiddin claimed they have enough support to secure a majority, but did not give details.

Anwar told a press conference earlier on Sunday that he received written support from lawmakers to secure a simple majority. He said this should be submitted to King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, who would have the final say. The king’s role is largely ceremonial in Malaysia, but he appoints the person he believes has majority support in Parliament as prime minister.

“We have got the majority…majority means more than 111,” Anwar said.

Muhyiddin, meanwhile, said he received a letter from the palace suggesting his bloc may have been favored to form a government over Anwar. He met with the leader of the Borneo bloc earlier on Sunday and said negotiations were also underway with other groups.

“God willing, the federal government will be able to be formed in the near future,” he wrote.

Muhyiddin took power in March 2020, defected from Anwar’s alliance and joined the UMNO-led alliance in a move that caused the government to collapse. The partnership was beset by internal strife and was called off after 17 months.

The two states on the island of Borneo won a total of 32 federal seats and their support is vital. UMNO will also be important, and leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in a statement that the National Front alliance is willing to put aside differences to ensure a stable government can be formed, but gave no details.

Zahid, who is fighting dozens of graft charges, is facing pressure to step down after UMNO’s second defeat at the polls.

The then Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob called early elections in October after buckling under pressure from UMNO. A strong comeback was expected amid a fragmented opposition, but the strategy backfired. UMNO leaders will meet later on Sunday to decide who to support.

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