GE15 in Malaysia: Party Politics in Flux, but Ethnic Structure Still Dominates

Malaysians went to the polls two days ago in the country’s 15th General Elections, which for the first time pitted three coalitions against one another. As I described last week, this multipolar political system dramatically increases the complexity of party politics in what is already a highly complex political system. But by taking careful look at how coalitions nominate various parties—given the ethnic structure of Malaysian politics in peninsular Malaysia—you can see the continuing role of ethnicity in shaping political competition.

The preliminary results are in, and they are a devastating blow to the old guard in Malaysian politics. The United Malays National Organisation, long the most dominant party in Malaysian politics and one of the most durable authoritarian political parties in the world, is now only the fifth largest political party in the country.

PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic PartyPerikatan Nasional (PN)44
DAP (Democratic Action Party)Pakatan Harapan (PH)40
PKR (People’s Justice Party)Pakatan Harapan (PH)31
Bersatu (Malaysian United Indigenous Party)Perikatan Nasional (PN)28
UMNO (United Malays National OrganisationBarisan Nasional (BN)26

There is a lot more to say about these other parties, but the basic result is that the Pakatan Harapan coalition won the most seats, but not enough to form a majority. As of the time that I am writing this, there are rumors that Perikatan Nasional (dominated by an Islamic party and a Malay nationalist party) could form a government with Barisan Nasional (still dominated by UMNO). This outcome, if it comes to pass, would mean that Malaysia’s ruling government would be an Islamist-Malay nationalist coalition, and the opposition will be a multiethnic and multifaith coalition.

I must emphasize that that coalition, if it forms, requires the support of some parties in East Malaysia. This same is true for nearly any governing coalition. East Malaysian party politics is fascinating and complex, but by and large it does not follow the same logic of ethnic political competition found in peninsular Malaysia. That peninsula-style ethnic politics must coexist with East Malaysia-style party politics is a fundamental feature of Malaysian politics, and no account of Malaysian politics can ignore it.

Nonetheless, we can still look through the results on the peninsula to get a sense of how ethnicity structures Malaysian politics. Below, I plot some results based on preliminary data that I have scraped from The Star, analyzed using the data that Seb Dettman and I have pulled together. We can use these data to see how the three coalitions fared across peninsular Malaysia’s 164 parliamentary constituencies (there are 165 in total, but 1 election is delayed for a couple weeks due to the death of a candidate).

What I have done here is to compare the vote share for each coalition with the bumiputera population share within that constituency. Blue points are where the coalition in question lost; red points are where they won. In the bottom left corner, I have predicted the probability that each coalition wins based solely on its bumiputera population share.*

Viewed this way, the results of GE15 are not confusing: the deep structure of peninsular Malaysian politics jumps right out. There is one coalition that fares well in non-Malay majority constituencies. And the other two fare well in Malay-majority constituencies. The battleground is the mixed constituencies on the peninsula with 20-40% non-bumiputera populations. It is true that the BN and UMNO have had a lousy result, but their voters have evidently swung to PN. Put simply, a BN-PN coalition makes perfect sense as the latest coalitional manifestation of ethnic politics in Malaysia. That is why those rumors are swirling.

There is a lot more to be written about these results. But one point that I wish to emphasize is that a BN-PN coalition would indeed represent a lot of continuity in Malaysian politics, but the role of PAS as the largest party in PN is special and important. PAS is an Islamist party; a large majority of Malaysian Muslims are Malays (and all Malaysian Malays are Muslims). It has historically been opposed to UMNO, although not always. But as I have been hinting for about a decade now in various unpublished essays (see e.g. here [PDF]), what I call Malaysia’s “ethnic order” creates incentives for politicians to capture an alignment of Malay and Muslim interests. As I wrote in that piece,

as Malaysia’s ancillary institutions reinforce Islam’s constitutive role in Malayness, they provide an alternative basis for political mobilization

That is my interpretation of is happening in Malaysian politics right now. That said, the latest news is that BN is meeting with Pakatan Harapan tomorrow morning (Malaysia time). Watch this space for more.


* These results come from a simple multinomial logistic regression where the outcome is the winning coalition, and bumiputera population share is the sole predictor. More sophisticated analyses with many more predictors produce the same qualitative results.