Malaysia Sees Far-Right Islamists Rise as Election Ends in Hung Parliament

Malaysia is facing a hung parliament for the first time in its political history, after its general elections swung in surprisingly hard favour of the country’s far-right Islamist party.

A record number of voters defied inclement weather and flooding to cast their ballots in the hotly anticipated election, as the nation of more than 33 million people sought to pry its way out of a period of political and social turmoil. The results, however, have only spurred more uncertainty.

Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), a conservative group that has previously called for theocratic Islamic rule in Malaysia, far exceeded expectations by winning 49 of 222 parliamentary seats in Saturday’s election, becoming the country’s largest single party.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan (PK) four-member alliance secured the most seats with 82, but it fell well short of the 112 majority needed to form a government. Second was Perikatan Nasional alliance, of which PAS is a member, securing 73 seats. Barisan Nasional, the controversy-ridden incumbent government, secured a mere 30 seats—its worst-ever performance.

The result—known as a “hung parliament” in the Westminster system—means that a combination of political groups will now have to agree to build a majority alliance to form a government.

Hung parliaments are often associated with fragile governments, as disparate parties scramble to form a majority via alliances and horse trades rather than public demand. For Malaysia, which has never experienced a hung parliament since hosting its first general election 67 years ago, the result speaks to the country’s deepening political crisis that has persisted since February 2020.

Since then, it has already seen three prime ministers in as many years and been beleaguered by corruption, rising inflation, and a cost-of-living crisis. Last month, incumbent prime minister Ismael Sabri Yakob called the snap election as his party hoped to capitalise on a weakened opposition to grow support and stabilise its fragile coalition—a move that has backfired.

Malaysia’s king previously set a deadline for political leaders to submit their choice for prime minister and a majority alliance for 2PM on Monday, but he has since postponed this by 24 hours as groups struggle to forge a deal.

The PAS-dominated PN alliance has already stated it has an agreement in place with legislators to form a government, but it is thought that Anwar’s PK alliance and the BN are also in talks. Both coalitions would need BN’s support to form a majority, leaving the group as kingmakers despite its historically poor showing.

But more shocking than the hung parliament was the so-called “green tsunami” that cemented the PAS’s influence in the political arena—more than doubling the party’s parliamentary head count from 18 to 49. The result caused stocks in gaming and alcohol to slump in Malaysia, as the party has previously called for the implementation of harsh Sharia law in the country and the unilateral conversion of minors to Islam.

“The most important part about this election was the rise of political Islam,” James Chin, professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania and an expert on Malaysian politics, told VICE World News. “The Islamic Party is now the largest bloc in parliament. Nobody saw that coming.”

The implication of an increased PAS presence in parliament, according to Chin, is that Muslim-majority Malaysia will now likely adopt a more conservative approach towards Islam.

“People knew that Malaysia was heading towards a more conservative political outlook,” said Chin, “but everybody was shocked.”

Saturday’s election was also the first time Malaysians between the ages of 18 and 20 were allowed to vote, after the government lowered the minimum age in 2019. This, combined with a new measure that created automatic voter registration, added more than five million voters to the rolls. Early indications suggest that many young people from rural areas voted PAS.

“The majority of the young people voted for the conservative Islamic party,” Charles Santiago, chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, and MP for Malaysia’s Klang constituency from 2008 to 2022, told VICE World News.

“It has madrasas [schools] all over the place, and there’s one perception that these young children have all been brainwashed by the party. This has been going on for some time.”

Amrita Malhi, a historian of Malaysia and the Malay World at Australia’s National University, also pointed to the party’s long-term investment in private kindergartens and religious schools for its supporters, which dates back to as early as the 1980s.

“PAS has a whole social infrastructure that it has invested in,” she told VICE World News. “It runs formal and informal institutions that care for its supporters from kindergartens through to funerals.”

“If it carries through with this sort of attitude into the federal government, I think we will have some big problems in terms of ethnic relations.”

PAS has courted controversy for its conservative beliefs and alignment with Islamic fundamentalists. Following the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August 2021, PAS international affairs and external relations committee chairman, Muhammad Khalil Abdul Hadi, congratulated the militant group for “successfully achieving victory for their country.” The leader of PAS's youth wing, Khairil Nizam Khirudin, later proposed closer ties between PAS and the Taliban, citing China’s warming relations with the group as a leading example.

In September 2021, PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang tabled a bill to raise the maximum punishments that Malaysian Islamic courts could mete out against those found in violation of sharia law—from three years jail, an RM 5000 ($1,093) fine, and six lashes of the cane, to 30 years’ jail, an RM 100,000 fine ($21,870), and 100 lashes. Many, including Malaysia’s human rights commission, warned that such laws would fuel violence against the LGBTQ+ community.

Chin described the religious beliefs espoused by the PAS leader in particular as “a very weird form of Islam that you don't find in many other parts of the world.”

“If it carries through with this sort of attitude into the federal government, I think we will have some big problems in terms of ethnic relations,” he said.

Three main major ethnic groups account for the vast majority of Malaysia’s 32 million people; Muslim Malays and other indigenous groups make up around 60%, ethnic Chinese around 25%, and ethnic Indians around 6.5%. Race and religion have long been divisive issues.

“It worries me a lot, speaking as a Malaysian,” Chin added. “Of course, I want the country to be more open and progressive—so for me this is a real backward [step].”

Santiago similarly suggested that the result spoke to growing divisions in Malaysian society, saying that of PAS’s supporters, “98% would be Malays.”

“You’re looking at a very divided nation. The phenomenal performance of the Islamic Party speaks to that reality,” he said.

While the green tsunami came as a shock to many—including pollsters who failed to anticipate PAS’s popularity—experts point to disenchantment with the government as another major factor in their rise. Malhi suggests that the incumbent BN party’s embroilment in corruption scandals meant that “PK and PAS have emerged as poles of attraction for disaffected voters.”

“For a long time, [PAS’s] Islamist critique of Barisan Nasional was the only type that ever had any social traction,” she said.

Santiago similarly pointed to the failures of the incumbent BN government. “Its leaders are seen as corrupt, its leaders are not seen as committed to the Malay community, and therefore people have given up and want to support something else,” he said.

Elsewhere, in another shock election result, Mahathir Mohamad was ousted from his parliamentary seat in Langkawi. Worse yet for the man known as the “Father of Modern Malaysia,” he lost his deposit after failing to garner at least one eighth of votes cast.

The 97-year-old, who ruled Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, is the country’s last elected prime minister having won the 2018 national election. That year, he secured a large majority by running on an anti-corruption platform, capitalising on public anger surrounding the 1MDB scandal that ousted the then-ruling BN government and has seen former prime minister Najib Razak handed a 12-year jail sentence on graft charges.

Mahathir, however, tendered a shock resignation in 2020 amid political infighting in his ruling coalition. He attempted to revive 2018’s successful messaging in the run up to this weekend’s election, positioning his Pejuang party as an alternative to the corrupt BN, and playing on fears that Razak may be pardoned if his party won re-election with a strong mandate.

But this messaging failed to galvanise support as it had done four years ago, with Mahathir losing his first election in more than half a century—comfortably at that—and leaving the almost-centenarian looking like a spent force in Malaysian politics.

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