Malaysians voted on Saturday in a closely fought general election, a contest that may not end years of political instability as polls show no clear winner in the Southeast Asian nation.
Longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition is forecast to win the most seats in parliament, but will fall short of the majority needed to form a government as he faces blocs led by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
With no clear winner, political uncertainty could linger as Malaysia faces slowing economic growth and rising inflation. She had three prime ministers in as many years.
If Anwar were to take over, it would cap a remarkable journey for a politician who has gone from heir-in-chief to prime minister to political prisoner convicted of sodomy to the country’s leading opposition figure in 25 years.
But rival coalitions could form a coalition even if Anwar wins the most votes, and the race is fluid as polls show a significant number of undecided voters.
“I don’t think it’s possible for any coalition to win alone,” said Sivamurugan Pandian, a political analyst at the Malaysian University of Science and Technology. “He’s going to have to work with others somehow.”
The new parties are dividing the votes and there is a significant number of new voters, he said.
Anwar’s bloc is multi-ethnic, while the other two prioritize the interests of the ethnic Malay Muslim majority. Muhyiddin’s bloc includes an Islamist party that has praised Sharia law.
Malaysia’s 21.1 million eligible voters, including 5 million new ones, will elect 222 MPs to the lower house of parliament.
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The main issues are the economic outlook and rising inflation. Many Malaysians are frustrated by the political instability, which they feel has diverted politicians’ attention from economic development.
Opinion polls show Anwar in the lead, with an independent Merdeka Center poll forecast on Friday that Anwar’s reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition is on course to win 82 seats, Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional alliance is gaining momentum among Malays in 43 seats, Ismail’s Barisan in 15, but 45 too close to call.
Anwar was the best choice for prime minister with 33%, followed by Muhyiddin with 26% and Ismail with 17%.
Barisan ruled for 60 years, from independence to 2018, while Perikatan is a new bloc that has emerged as a strong third force.
“To form the next government, Anwar must win an absolute majority,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “Otherwise, even if they win the most seats, Malay-Muslim coalitions will come together to form the next government.”
Anwar came close to becoming prime minister in 2020, but the power struggle in the coalition denied him that chance. His more than two decades as an opposition figure included nine years in prison for sodomy and corruption, charges he says were politically motivated.
He was released from prison in 2018 after joining former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, both his mentor and longtime rival, 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 fell apart after 22 months in power due to infighting over Mahathir’s promise, now 97, to hand over the prime ministership to Anwar. Muhyiddin briefly became prime minister, but his administration collapsed last year, paving the way for Barisan’s return to power with Ismail at the helm.
Sheila Supramaniam, 30, said she would vote for Anwar because his coalition stood firm against corruption and discrimination.
“The fact that he has fought all these years to be where he is today and watching all the other prime ministers tear Malaysia down, he deserves a chance for all he has been through,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Mei Mei Chu, Ebrahim Harris and Hasnoor Hussain; Writing by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by William Mallard)