Dennis Ignatius: Crucial state elections could decide the future of Anwar’s government

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The future of the federal government is now in the hands of voters in six of Malaysia’s 13 states.

KK Sham/The Star

State-level elections are traditionally more about local issues but the upcoming elections (in the states of Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, Penang and Selangor) have taken on an added dimension because they have become a contest to decide who speaks for the Malay heartland, the most important political demographic in Malaysia.

In the last general election, Malay voters tended to favour the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition comprising Bersatu and PAS over that of Pakatan Harapan (PH) led by Anwar Ibrahim or the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN). The shift in Malay support helped PAS in particular to emerge as the largest party in parliament for the first time since independence in 1957.

This, in turn, has enabled PN to claim bragging rights that it now represents the voice of the Malays. The August 12 elections will test that proposition.

While non-Malay voters, terrified about PAS gaining ground, will overwhelmingly cast their votes for Prime Minister Anwar’s PH-BN ‘unity’ government, Malay voters will have other considerations in mind – the rising cost of living in particular, along with who can best represent their religious and nationalist aspirations.

Unsurprisingly, PN’s election strategy is heavily reliant on issues of race and religion. Since campaigning began, PN has warned, for example, that the Chinese-dominated DAP could seize power, block key Islamic reforms and undermine the position of the Malays. Former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin has also accused Prime Minister Anwar of failing to defend the sanctity of Islam over the Allah issue.

In the meantime, driven by his intense animosity towards Anwar, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has joined forces with PN, playing up the old canard that the Malays are facing an existential threat from non-Malays. Incredibly, he also attacked Anwar for promoting respect and tolerance for multiculturalism, claiming it is unconstitutional to do so, in the hope of convincing voters that Anwar has failed to defend the Malays and Islam.

It’s hard to tell how the race and religion narrative will play out among Malay voters – especially the millions of new and younger voters that were added to the roll following automatic voter registration – but PN certainly seems to believe it is a winning strategy.

Given the stakes involved, Anwar and his colleagues appear to be pulling out all the stops to win. Hitherto unimaginable political compromises on seat allocations have been made amongst coalition partners to maximise their electoral strength. Even MIC, a minuscule Indian party on its last legs, has been courted with the promise of a cabinet position.

But Anwar’s coalition government could be vulnerable. It has failed thus far to excite voters; it has not been able to effectively counter the opposition’s race and religion narrative and it has not done quite enough on the cost-of-living issue. Taken together, and especially if voter turnout is low, it could spell trouble for the government.

Furthermore, UMNO itself – a key element in the campaign to win Malay support – is hobbled by internal divisions. UMNO grassroot members are also still struggling to digest their party’s post-GE15 embrace of the DAP (long considered the devil incarnate by UMNO members) as part of the unity government. Not a few political pundits predict that UMNO could fare badly.

To shore up his position, Anwar has exploited the power of incumbency to throw millions of ringgit of public funds into the election in the form of subsidies, one-off payments, special aid for civil servants and allocations for state infrastructure projects and key interest groups.

If Anwar’s coalition fails to gain significant Malay support, it will not immediately lose federal power, but it could lose its political legitimacy in the eyes of the Malay heartland and quite possibly weaken Anwar.

Certainly, a resurgent PN will step up its political assault on the government, framing everything in terms of race and religion. It could make for a very toxic environment and lead to the kind of political paralysis that the earlier PH administration experienced over issues like ICERD and ICC.

The other likely consequence of a serious loss of Malay support is that it could force the Anwar Administration to lurch to the right in the hopes of outmanoeuvring PN and reclaiming its legitimacy among Malay-Muslim voters. A more right-wing, more Islamic-orientated government could emerge that would further complicate Malaysian politics.

For all these reasons, the August 12th elections are being keenly if nervously anticipated. The future of the federal government is now in the hands of voters in six of Malaysia’s 13 states (and territories). Weary of the long years of political instability, the rest of the country will no doubt be hoping that voters give Anwar the endorsement he needs to get on with the onerous task of governing the country.  If they don’t, Malaysia could be in for yet more political turmoil and uncertainty. – Dennis Ignatius