Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin have each said they have enough support among legislators to form a new government after the weekend’s hotly-contested election failed to resolve the political uncertainty that has plagued the Southeast Asian nation in recent years.
Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition came out on top in Saturday’s election with 82 seats, and he announced shortly afterwards that the coalition had the numbers to lead.
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On Monday, he and other senior PH leaders were pictured meeting rivals from the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition at a Kuala Lumpur hotel. As the two sides met, it was confirmed they had agreed a separate coalition to rule northern Perak following that state’s weekend election. A pact between the two coalitions was later announced in the central state of Pahang too.
Speaking to the media after Monday’s negotiations to form a government at the federal level, Anwar said he was “extremely pleased” with how the discussions had gone and optimistic they could form a government.
Earlier Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, which came second with 73 seats and is dominated by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), released a statement saying it had submitted a list of lawmakers to the king who would support its bid to form the government.
It did not go into detail about who they were, but on Sunday Muhyiddin, shared a photo on social media of a meeting with one of the Borneo leaders whose backing he needs.
Abang Johari Openg, the Sarawakian leader, later said that the Borneo parties and BN had agreed to back Muhyiddin.
“They will often make the case for autonomy and more devolution of powers,” political analyst Oh Ei Sun said of the Borneo leaders. “On the other hand, I do think when it comes to political calculations on which coalition to join it’s very much more about the vested interests of politicians there than the livelihoods and wellbeing of the people.”
A party or coalition requires a simple majority of 112 seats in the 222 seat parliament in order to form a government. Malaysia’s constitutional monarch earlier gave the coalitions until 2pm (06:00 GMT) on Monday to submit their lists, but after BN asked for more time agreed to extend the deadline by 24 hours.
The PH coalition theoretically needs to join forces only with BN, which won 30 seats, to form a government. BN lawmakers were huddled in a meeting at their headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Monday afternoon to thrash out their decision.
Muhyiddin also needs BN’s backing in addition to the Borneo parties in order to reach the necessary parliamentary majority.
After Abang’s statement on Sunday, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and leader of BN, said in his own statement that the coalition was not part of the deal. He reminded the coalition’s members of the pact that they had made to support the decisions of its president.
Zahid was at Monday’s meeting with PH along with most other senior members of the coalition. Afterwards, Zahid said any decision would need the backing of BN’s top decision-making council, which he chairs.
Zahid is under pressure from some in UMNO to resign after BN’s dismal performance in an election he is thought to have pressured Prime Minister Ismail Sabri into calling early. Zahid is also on trial for corruption, and surveys show he is deeply unpopular with the Malaysian public. Four BN MPs did not attend Monday’s session, with former defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein writing on Facebook that he could not support cooperation between BN and PH.
Malaysia has been struggling with political instability since PH won the 2018 election, ejecting BN from power for the first time since Malaysia’s independence amid outrage at the multibillion-dollar corruption scandal surrounding state fund 1MDB.
PH went on to rule for a couple of years amid pushback from some elements of the country’s conservative nationalist Malays, but the coalition collapsed after an internal power grab in February 2020.
That led to Muhyiddin, who was among those who had defected from PH, being named prime minister with the backing of BN.
The political jostling continued even as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, and Muhyiddin was replaced by Ismail Sabri a little over a year later.
Official figures from Saturday’s election showed a record number of Malaysians casting their votes, with PH securing 5.81 million, PN 4.67 million and BN 3.43 million. The electoral roll had been enlarged after a constitutional change to give 18-year-olds the right to vote and for automatic voter registration, which further increased uncertainty over the outcome.
The surge in support for PAS in the election caught many by surprise and has raised concern about Malaysia’s future direction in a country where race and religion have long been divisive issues.
Tricia Yeoh, who heads the Malaysian think-tank IDEAS, told Al Jazeera the party’s performance was the “major surprise” of the poll.
“I expected them to do well in the rural areas and the east coast but now they are the single largest party in parliament,” she said.
Malaysia is an ethnically-diverse nation with a Malay Muslim majority and significant communities of ethnic Chinese and Indians, as well as Indigenous people.