How a New Youth-Driven Party Is Shaking Up Malaysian Politics

How a New Youth-Driven Party Is Shaking Up Malaysian Politics
A protest against the appointment of Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Feb. 29, 2020 (AP photo by Vincent Thian).

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman turned heads in 2018 when, at the age of 25, he became the youngest-ever Malaysian politician appointed to a Cabinet post. Last year, he helped secure the passage of a landmark constitutional amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. Now, the telegenic former youth and sports minister is building a new, youth-led political party that follows a recent trend of millennial-inspired political movements in Southeast Asia, including the Indonesian Solidarity Party and Thailand’s now-banned Future Forward Party. Syed Saddiq’s party, the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance—or MUDA, which means “young” in Malay—aims to capitalize on widespread frustration with the country’s winner-take-all politics and galvanize Malaysia’s long-underrepresented youth into a potent political force.

The timing is opportune. Since Mahathir Mohamad suddenly stepped down as prime minister in February in a failed attempt to form a new coalition government, politicians from across the political spectrum have been locked in a fierce and polarizing fight for control. The current Perikatan Nasional coalition, led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, holds a razor-thin majority in Parliament. It is an uneasy alliance of defectors from Mahathir’s old Pakatan Harapan coalition and remnants of the formerly dominant Barisan Nasional alliance, which had been in power for six decades before a huge corruption scandal led voters to resoundingly reject it in the 2018 general election.

Muhyiddin managed to avoid a planned vote of no confidence during a parliamentary session in May, and his coalition partners scored an important victory in state elections in Sabah, on the island of Borneo, in September, but his government remains shaky. Anwar Ibrahim, the longtime opposition leader who was slated to take the reins of Pakatan Harapan from Mahathir before he resigned, recently met with Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, to present evidence that he has enough support in Parliament to form a new government. Regardless, many observers expect snap elections will be held in the near future to break the political impasse.

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