Malaysia faces a hung parliament for the first time in its history as support for a conservative Islamist alliance prevented major coalitions from winning a simple majority in a general election.
Without a clear winner, political uncertainty is likely to persist as Malaysia faces slowing economic growth and rising inflation. There have been three prime ministers in as many years.
The failure of the main parties to win a majority means that their combination will have to form a majority alliance to form a government. Malaysia’s constitutional monarch can also intervene, as he has the right to appoint a lawmaker with a majority vote as prime minister.
Longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition won the most seats in Saturday’s general election, Election Commission results showed.
The biggest surprise was former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who led his Perikatan National Bloc to a strong showing with support from traditional strongholds of the current government.
Muhyiddin’s alliance includes a Malay-centric conservative party and an Islamist party that promotes sharia, or Islamic law. Race and religion are divisive issues in Malaysia, where Muslim ethnic-Malays make up the majority and ethnic Chinese and Indians form a minority.
Both Anwar and Muhyiddin said they supported the formation of the government, although they did not say which parties they were allied with.
Muhyiddin said he hoped to conclude discussions by Sunday afternoon. His alliance is a junior partner in the ruling coalition of current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yacob and could work with them again.
Anwar said he would send a letter of support to King Al-Sultan Abdullah of Malaysia.
If Anwar takes the top job, it will mark a remarkable journey for a politician who has risen from heir apparent to prime minister, from convicted prisoner to the country’s leading opposition figure in 25 years.
Since 2015, Malaysian politics has been overshadowed by the 1MDB corruption scandal, which saw billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money siphoned off the country. He overthrew former prime minister Najib Razak, who has now served 12 years in prison for corruption.
The Southeast Asian country has been ruled by three prime ministers since a record-breaking hotly contested election four years ago on the central issue of corruption.
Malaysia has 222 parliamentary seats, but elections were held on Saturday for only 220 seats.
The Election Commission said Anwar’s multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition won a total of 82 seats, while Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional alliance won 73 seats. Ismail’s Barisan coalition got 30. One location was not announced at 2100 GMT.
“The main result of this election is that Perikatan has successfully broken the two-party system,” said Adib Zalkapli, director of political consultancy Bower Group Asia.
Barisan and Pakatan have long been the main blocs in Malaysia.
Barisan said it accepted the people’s decision but stopped short of admitting defeat. The coalition said in a statement that it is ready to form a stable government.
Veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad lost his seat to Muhyiddin’s alliance in his first election defeat in 53 years, a blow that could end his seven-decade political career.
A record number of Malaysians voted on Saturday in hopes of stemming a wave of political uncertainty that has led to three prime ministers amid uncertain economic times and the Covid-19 pandemic.
After Barisan was defeated in the 2018 elections after 60 years of rule after independence, the political landscape became difficult.
Anwar made a name for himself as a student activist in various Muslim youth groups in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1960s as the country emerged from the protracted communist insurgency of the Malayan Emergency.
In 1974, Anwar was arrested during a student protest against poverty in the village and was imprisoned for 20 months. Despite his fiery reputation, he confounded liberal supporters in 1982 by joining the conservative United Malays National Organization (UMNO), led by Mahathir.
The freed politician succeeded then-Prime Minister Mahathir until 1998, when he was sacked and accused of corruption and impeachment. He was found guilty the following year, a decision that led to massive street protests.
The sodomy conviction was overturned, but the corruption conviction was never overturned, barring him from political office for a decade.
After his ban on political participation was lifted in 2008, he was again accused of hooliganism.
After an acquittal on appeal, he was again convicted and jailed in 2015. When the verdict came into effect, rights groups criticized it as politically motivated – a claim the government denied.
Anwar was released from prison in 2018 after joining old foes Mahathir and Muhyiddin to defeat Barisan for the first time in Malaysia’s history, amid public protests against the government over the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal.
That coalition fell apart after 22 months in power over Mahathir’s promise 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 Ismail to take over.