Malaysia was facing a hung parliament for the first time in its history as the backing of a conservative Islamist coalition prevented major alliances from winning a simple majority in a general election.
Without a clear winner, political uncertainty may persist as Malaysia faces slowing economic growth and rising inflation. It has had three prime ministers in as many years.
The failure of the major parties to win a majority means that a combination of them will have to build a majority coalition to form a government. Malaysia’s constitutional monarch may also step in, where he has the power to appoint a prime minister a legislator he believes can command a majority.
Results from the Election Commission showed that longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition won the most seats in Saturday’s general election.
The biggest surprise came from former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin who led his Brikatan National Bloc to a strong performance, drawing support from the traditional strongholds of the current government.
Muhyiddin’s coalition includes a conservative party centered on Malay and an Islamic party that promotes sharia, or Islamic law. Race and religion are contentious issues in Malaysia, with ethnic Malay Muslims making up the majority and ethnic Chinese and Indians the minorities.
Both Anwar and Muhyiddin claimed they had support to form the government, though they did not disclose which parties they were allied with.
Muhyiddin said he hoped to conclude the discussions on Sunday afternoon. His alliance is a junior partner in the ruling coalition headed by the current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaqoub, and he can work with them again.
Anwar said he would submit a letter to Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah detailing his support.
If Anwar takes the top job, it will be a remarkable journey for a politician who has gone, in the span of 25 years, from heir apparent, to prime minister, to convicted sodomy prisoner to the country’s leading opposition figure.
Since 2015, Malaysian politics has been overshadowed by the 1MDB corruption scandal, which has seen billions of dollars in taxpayer money embezzled out of the country. It brought down former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is now serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.
Three prime ministers have ruled the Southeast Asian country since it fought a heated, record-turnout election four years ago on the main issue of corruption.
Malaysia has 222 parliamentary seats, but elections were held for only 220 seats on Saturday.
The Election Commission said Anwar’s multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition won a total of 82 seats, while Muhyiddin’s Perikatan National Alliance won 73 seats. Ismail’s Barisan coalition won 30 seats. Not a single seat had been announced as of 2100 GMT.
“The main takeaway from this election is that Perikatan has succeeded in disrupting the two-party system,” said Adeeb Zalkapli, director at political consultancy Bower Group Asia.
Barisan and Bakatan have always been the main blocks in Malaysia.
Barisan said he accepted the decision of the people, but did not accept defeat. The coalition said in a statement that it remained committed to forming a stable government.
Meanwhile, veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad suffered his first electoral defeat in 53 years, in a blow that could signal the end of a seven-decade political career, and he lost his seat to Muhyiddin’s coalition.
A record number of Malaysians voted on Saturday, hoping to end a wave of political uncertainty that has led to three prime ministers amid uncertain economic times and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The political landscape has been rocky since Barisan lost the 2018 elections after ruling for 60 years of independence.
Anwar made his name as a student activist in various Muslim youth groups in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1960s, as the country was reeling from a protracted communist insurgency in the Malayan Emergency.
Arrested in 1974 in student protests against rural poverty, Anwar was sentenced to 20 months in prison. Despite his controversial reputation, he later confused liberal supporters in 1982 by joining Mahathir’s conservative United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
The released politician was the heir apparent to then-Prime Minister Mahathir until 1998, when he was sacked and charged with corruption and sodomy. He was convicted the following year, a verdict that led to massive street demonstrations.
The sodomy conviction was overturned, but the corruption ruling was never, which prevented him from running for political office until a decade later.
In 2008, once his ban on political participation was lifted, further charges of sodomy were brought against him.
After appealing his not guilty verdict on those charges, he was again convicted and imprisoned in 2015. Human rights groups sharply criticized him when he upheld the conviction, calling it politically motivated – an allegation denied by the government.
Anwar was released from prison in 2018 after joining his old foe Mahathir and Muhyiddin to defeat Barisan for the first time in Malaysian history, amid public anger at the government over the multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal.
This coalition collapsed after 22 months in power due to infighting over a promise from Mahathir to hand over the premiership to Anwar. Muhyiddin briefly held the premiership, but his administration collapsed last year, paving the way for Barisan’s return to power with Ismail at the helm.