Business as Usual Won’t End Malaysia’s Political Paralysis

Business as Usual Won’t End Malaysia’s Political Paralysis
A protester holds a placard during a demonstration demanding the then-prime minister step down, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 31, 2021 (AP photo by FL Wong).

Two recent state-level elections in Malaysia have put the spotlight on the country’s volatile political landscape, ahead of national elections that many expect to be called this year. The scandal-tainted ruling United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, came out strengthened from victories in both campaigns, while the opposition Pakatan Harapan’s disappointing performance presents it with new challenges in its efforts to return to power. But backroom deals and maneuvers by political elites in Kuala Lumpur are leaving many ordinary Malaysians frustrated and disillusioned with a political system that seems riddled by corruption and unresponsive to their needs. 

Mahathir Mohamad, the 96-year-old elder statesman and former prime minister who remains a leading voice among opposition figures, described the next general election, which is due by May 2023, as the “last chance to clean up the country” and remove a “corrupt” government that took office through parliamentary maneuvers, rather than an electoral victory. Mahathir was Pakatan Harapan’s prime minister candidate when it won the last national election in 2018 on a reformist platform. But after he resigned in February 2020 due to divisions in the coalition that cost him his parliamentary majority, two years of political upheaval ensued. 

Since then Malaysia has been governed by two unelected coalitions, with Muhyiddin Yassin using parliamentary maneuvers to replace Mahathir, only to be himself replaced under similar circumstances by Ismail Sabri Yaakob in August. The latter transfer of power marked the UMNO’s return to the premiership.

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