Malaysia’s fifteenth general election, held in late November, is arguably the most historic in the country’s history. For the first time, no coalition managed to secure a parliamentary majority, resulting in a hung federal parliament.
Adding to the unexpected twist, the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) – one that historically wielded less influence among Muslims and ethnic Malays – achieved their best ever result and came in first with 49 of the country’s 222 federal parliamentary seats. The secular Democratic Action Party clinched the second spot, with 40 seats.
PAS is part of the Perikatan Nasional coalition (translated as National Alliance). Together with the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), which won 25 seats, the coalition secured 74 seats.
Meanwhile, the two other coalitions – the centre-left Pakatan Harapan (translated as Alliance of Hope), and the centre-right Barisan Nasional (translated as National Front) – secured 81 and 30 seats respectively.
After a week of intense negotiations, the two coalitions – Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional – agreed to form a unity government. The constitutional monarch, King Sultan Abdullah appointed Anwar Ibrahim, Pakatan Harapan’s Chairman, as Prime Minister of the unity government. Anwar later chose the Chairman of Barisan Nasional, Ahmad Zahid, as the Deputy Prime Minister.
This alliance between the two coalitions was unprecedented, with the two perceived as unlikely bedfellows. The Barisan Nasional, dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), had vehemently championed for Malay rights and interests, while the Pakatan Harapan campaigned for racial equality.
Secularism vs. Islamism
Politics in Malaysia has historically been structured along ethnic lines. UMNO has historically dominated the political scene by mobilising the Malay electorate on the grounds of ethnicity and Malay nationalism. However, since Malays are legally obliged to profess the Muslim faith under the Malaysian constitution, PAS has attempted to peel off Malay support from UMNO by challenging the latter’s secular narrative.
Unlike UMNO, PAS claims to be more intentional in upholding Islamic values. After it became the ruling government in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu, it enacted Syariah legislations in 1993 and 2002 respectively. However, the federal government, then controlled by Barisan Nasional, prevented such laws from being enforced on the grounds of incompatibility with the federal constitution.
Factors behind the PAS victory
While PAS had in the past remained less influential among Malays compared to the more mainstream UMNO, PAS currently has almost double of UMNO’s 26 seats after the latest election. This can be linked to fortuitous circumstances facilitating PAS’ electoral turnabout, strategic alliances and clever messaging in recent years.
UMNO was plagued by a series of corruption allegations spanning from the era of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is now imprisoned for his role in the 1MDB scandal, to current leader Zahid Hamidi (the newly-sworn Deputy Prime Minister) who is now facing corruption trials.
UMNO has thus lost much credibility as the champion for Malay rights, especially after senior UMNO politicians broke off in 2016 to form Bersatu while remaining publicly committed Malay nationalists. Bersatu later allied with PAS to form the Perikatan Nasional coalition.
This arrangement to collaborate with a rising Malay nationalist party (Bersatu) has enabled PAS to compensate for its historical deficits in Malay nationalist credentials. In this election, Perikatan Nasional campaigned on a welfarist, anti-corruption, and political stability platform, while equating support for Barisan Nasional as a vote for corruption.
Perikatan Nasional also claimed that Pakatan Harapan is detrimental for Malay interests, with Muhyiddin Yassin reportedly commenting during his campaign trail that Pakatan Harapan is supported by a proxy that intends to “Christianise” Malaysia.
The success of Perikatan Nasional’s electoral strategy could be understood by the complimentary nature of PAS and Bersatu, with each party using its strengths to cover for its ally’s weaknesses.
For instance, PAS’ status as a religious party contributed moral credibility to the Perikatan Nasional coalition, while contesting under a major Malay-based coalition with Bersatu offered PAS the cover to credibly compete across all Peninsula states.
In regions outside its traditional East Coast stronghold, PAS ran a restrained campaign to avoid the perception as being extreme, staying laser-focused on economic and corruption issues while avoiding references to Syariah law. High-profile social media influencers also endorsed PAS while releasing catchy Tiktok videos, which in hindsight was instrumental in gaining young Malay votes.
This proved to be a winning strategy, with PAS for the first time capturing parliamentary seats in Melaka and being just short of replicating a similar feat in Johor. This is a remarkable accomplishment given that PAS historically had minimal sway even among Malay and Muslim voters in the states south of Klang Valley.
The rise of political Islam in post-election Malaysia
Despite its historic gains in the general election, PAS now faces a daunting task in maintaining its recent electoral momentum.
Firstly, concerns over corruption and a faltering economy played into the hands of PAS’ largely negative messaging. This may soon backfire since the present unity government is now opening new corruption investigations against senior Perikatan Nasional leaders.
PAS also seems to have returned to old playbooks to bolster its Islamist credentials, particularly with an eye towards impending state polls in the three PAS administered states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu. PAS has recently passed legislative amendments in the Terengganu state assembly to criminalise pregnancies outside marriage, while banning all forms of (previously) licensed gambling in Kedah starting January 2023.
Such a legislative record may affect PAS’ credibility should it attempt to articulate a broad-based, multi-ethnic electoral platform for future state and federal elections.
PAS’ extraordinary ascent has ironically created a major paradox for the party moving forward. Given Malaysia’s ethnic and religious diversity, the more intensely PAS pushes forth an Islamist agenda to enhance its moral standing, the more challenging it becomes for PAS to retain its recent electoral gains in demographically mixed and urban constituencies.
However, should PAS decide to shift towards the centre to appeal to voters in its recently won constituencies, opportunities may open up for electoral rival UMNO to encroach into PAS’ own traditional strongholds.
For these reasons, the rise of PAS seems to be highly nuanced and context-specific. To solve this conundrum, the party will likely have to ask hard questions of its political (or religious) identity before it can build upon recent gains to achieve another “green tsumani” in the upcoming state elections.
A version of this piece was first published in The Conversation.