Malaysia’s Upcoming General Election: Ethnicity in a Multipolar Political System

Lots of people are excited by the most interesting general election scheduled this November: GE15, Malaysia’s 15th General Election since independence. There have been a lot of changes in Malaysian politics that I have had the fortune to see over the past twenty years, including the return of Anwar Ibrahim, first-ever defeat of the dominant Barisan Nasional government in 2018, and the most complicated coalitional politicking I’ve ever seen, which is so baroque and complicated that it has its own wikipedia page called, simply, “2020-2022 Malaysian political crisis.”

One thing that has not changed much in that time span is the role of ethnicity in Malaysian politics. I’ve written about this before on this blog, and also in the Journal of East Asian Studies—which I now edit. Here is my take on the 2008 election, and another on 2013. Things have changed mightily after 2018 in terms of Malaysia’s coalitional politics, as the BN’s main political party, the United Malays National Organisation, fractured. The ensuing years have seen many attempts to pick up the pieces and put them back together again.

GE15 will feature the latest iteration of Malaysia’s coalitional politics, with every constituency in Malaysia being contested by candidates from three coalitions:

  1. Barisan Nasional (“National Front”), comprised of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), and several smaller parties
  2. Pakatan Harapan (“Alliance of Hope”), comprised of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), Amanah (the National Trust Party), and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). It is contesting GE15 in alliance with Muda, whose name means “Youth” and represents younger voters.
  3. Perikatan Nasional (“National Alliance”), comprised of Bersatu (the Malaysian United Indigenous Party), the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and Gerakan (the People’s Movement Party).

Importantly, I have not listed any parties based in the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak above, because my discussion here focuses on politics in peninsular Malaysia. But as always, it is impossible to understand Malaysian politics completely without taking East Malaysia into account. The simple fact is that ethnic politics in Sabah and Sarawak follows a different logic, one that I will pick up elsewhere.

Seb Dettman and I are preparing to study the outcome of GE15 as the results come in. But even before the election happens, we are able to study some features of how ethnic politics plays out in three-cornered races throughout the country. Specifically, we can look at how different coalitions appeal to different ethnic constituencies by deciding which party’s candidate will run in each constituency. Many of Malaysia’s political parties are explicitly ethnic parties, and even those that are not (like DAP and PKR) recognize the importance of ethnic appeals for garnering votes. By looking which parties are nominated in each constituency, we can learn something about the ethnic structure of Malaysian politics right now.

And thanks to some favorable developments over the past decade, we have a lot more data to work with than I had previously. Specifically, Malaysia’s Department of Statistics has made available a whole host of interesting data mapped to the electoral constituency level, allowing us to look at things like human development, agriculture, economic activities, population structure, and others when examining the relationship between constituency-level ethnicity and party nominations. I never had that available previously, but having that data allows us to do more sophisticated analyses than we have been previously able to do.

So, onto the analyses. Our strategy is pretty easy. For each of the three coalition, we estimated the probability* that each of its parties would be nominated in each constituency as a function of constituency-level ethnic structure, its geographic area, its population, the prevalence of agriculture, and state fixed effects.** Our sample here is the 165 constituencies in peninsular Malaysia: these analyses exclude Sabah and Sarawak. We then plot the results across various values of ethnic structure, which we measure here as the proportion of the population which is bumiputera. Although that term includes many groups, in peninsular Malaysia it refers predominantly to Malays. Here is what we find.

To understand what you are looking at, look first to the top plot. In constituencies that do not have bumiputera majorities, the BN normally runs a candidate from MCA, its Chinese party. But as the bumiputera population share rises, UMNO becomes more likely to contest. UMNO always runs in the constituencies with overwhelming bumiputera majorities.

Now look at the middle plot. Amanah is a progressive or reformist Muslim party, and it contests primarily in constituencies with large bumiputera majorities. This makes sense because all Malays are Muslims by law. The DAP is dominant in constituencies with large non-bumiputera majorities; it is a social democratic party by heritage, but it has long been primarily Chinese in membership. PKR is the most interesting: it is a multiethnic party, and many of its members strive for a post-ethnic Malaysian politics and for social reform more generally. Pakatan Harapan runs PKR candidates in all sorts of constituencies, but it is most likely to run them in mixed constituencies with a relatively small bumiputera majority. These are the most multiethnic parts of Malaysia, and that is PKR’s sweet spot.

Now look at the bottom plot. PAS is an Islamist party, so PN runs PAS in the same sorts of heavily Malay districts where PH runs Amanah and the BN runs UMNO. Gerakan is a tiny party (no seats in Parliament), but it has a long history as a liberal counterpart to DAP: mostly Chinese in membership, but multiethnic in character. Bersatu is a splinter party of UMNO, and has worked together with UMNO in recent years. PN has a tricky problem of finding where to run Bersatu candidates; even though it is a indigenous nationalist party, it must cede some territory to PAS in the most Malay constituencies. Bersatu candidates basically seem to run in places where PAS has no chance, and where the PN leadership thinks it has a better chance than does Gerakan.

The main conclusion to draw here is that ethnic politics still plainly matters (you can predict a lot by just knowing a constituency’s bumiputera population share), but in a multipolar political environment and outside of the BN coalition, matters are a lot more complicated than they used to be. But before we end, here is one more piece of data.

Seb has collected ethnic background for (nearly) all candidates in GE15, which allows us to look at the ethnicity of the candidate being run. Because so many parties are ethnically constituted, this analysis often just repeats how parties operate, but the multiethnic PKR offers some interesting data because more than any other party, its candidates really do come from all backgrounds. So we redid the analysis above, but this time calculated the probability that each of the 75 PKR candidates on the peninsula was Malay, Chinese, or Indian. Here is what we find:

Within PKR, nominations follow a clear ethnic logic as well. Perhaps not surprising to anyone who knows Malaysian politics well, but still a useful window into the subtle ways in which Malaysia’s political parties reflect the country’s ethnic order.


* These are estimated as multinominal logistic regressions with standard errors clustered by state.

** These are surprisingly useful for distinguishing constituency-level factors from regional factors.