KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 12 (AP): Voting was underway on Saturday in crucial state elections in
Malaysia, where Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s multi-coalition government is seeking to
strengthen its hold against a strong Islamic opposition.
Voters flocked to schools and other polling stations nationwide, with Anwar and his wife among
the early birds who cast their votes at their hometown in northern Penang state.
Nearly 9.8 million people, or half the country’s electorate, are eligible to elect 245 assembly
members in six states, that contribute more than half of Malaysia’s gross domestic product.
The polls are widely viewed as an early referendum both for Anwar’s leadership and also the
strength of the Islamist opposition after a divisive general election in November.
While the local elections have no direct impact on the federal government, the outcome could
signal whether Anwar’s government can last a full five-year term.
The two contending coalitions currently control three states each. If the opposition takes
control of states led by Anwar’s bloc or otherwise has a strong showing in state polls, analysts
say it will put pressure on Anwar and could rock the country’s political stability.
Before Anwar, Malaysia had three prime ministers since 2018 after lawmakers switched
support for political mileage.
“The stakes are high for Anwar and his leadership,” said Amir Fareed Rahim, director of strategy
at political risk consultancy KRA Group. “A good showing will be a boost for the longer-term
stability of Anwar’s unity government. Otherwise, there will be increased political noise that can
disrupt and undermine the political authority of his government.”
Malaysia’s politics were thrown into disarray after November’s general election led to an
unprecedented hung Parliament.
Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance won the most seats but failed to win a majority after
many ethnic Malays threw their support behind the Perikatan Nasional (PN) bloc, led by former
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The PN bloc includes the conservative Pan-Malaysian
Islamic Party (PAS), which emerged as the largest single party in Parliament.
At the behest of the nation’s king, rival parties came together to form Anwar’s unity
government. The support of the once-dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)
and other smaller parties gave Anwar a two-thirds majority in Parliament, but analysts say this
loose alliance is perceived as unstable and needs stronger support from the Malay majority.
The polls are in Selangor and Penang, two of the country’s richest states, as well as Negeri
Sembilan, which were ruled by Anwar’s PH alliance. Three poorer Malay heartland states —
Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu — were controlled by PAS. Most political observers predict a
status quo but believe there will be increased support for the PN opposition.
Voting ends at 6 p.m. (1000 GMT) and the results will be known later Saturday. With four hours
left, turnout was only around the halfway mark, the Election Commission said.
Anwar, 76, has zig-zagged across the country pitching the appeal of political stability and his
concept of a progressive government. He marked his 76th birthday on Thursday by giving fiery
speeches late into the night at political rallies in Selangor.
In a Facebook video Friday, Anwar urged Malaysians to vote wisely and opt for unity for a stable
future and a strong economy. He has said a win for his unity government will save the country
from racial and religious bigotry, and appealed for time for his government to deliver on its
promises for reforms.
Many in the Malay community view Anwar as too liberal and fear their Islamic identity and
economic privileges under a decades-old affirmative action program could be chipped away.
By law, all Malays are Muslims and Islam is the official religion in Malaysia. Malays make up
over 2/3 of Malaysia’s 33 million people, with large Chinese and Indian minorities.
The rise of PAS, which espouses a theocratic state and has long positioned itself as a defender of
Islam and Malays, partly reflected a growing religious conservatism among Malays. Despite a
poor economic track record in the three states it rules, PAS retained loyalty through its religious
In a Facebook post this week, PAS hard-line leader Abdul Hadi Awang implied that the
opposition can topple Anwar’s government if they sweep all six states.
Analysts said Anwar would have time to build his political base before the next general election
in 2027 if he can keep the three states under his alliance.
If Anwar fails, it could prompt allies in his government to rethink their partnership. A shift in
allegiance could plunge the country into new turbulence, analysts said.