Malaysia faced a parliament for the first time in its history as support for a conservative Islamic alliance prevented grand coalitions from winning a simple majority in general elections.
Without a clear winner, political uncertainty could linger as Malaysia faces slowing economic growth and rising inflation. It has had three prime ministers in as many years.
If the main parties fail to win a majority, it means that a combination of them would have to form a majority alliance to form a government. Malaysia’s constitutional monarch could also get involved, as he has the power to appoint a lawmaker as prime minister whom he believes has a majority.
The coalition of longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim won the most seats in Saturday’s parliamentary elections, Electoral Commission results showed.
The biggest surprise came from former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who led his bloc Perikatan Nasional to a strong showing, drawing support from the incumbent government’s traditional strongholds.
Muhyiddin’s alliance includes a Malay-leaning conservative party and an Islamist party that propagates Sharia, or Islamic law. Race and religion are contentious issues in Malaysia, where the Muslim ethnic Malay population form the majority and ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
Both Anwar and Muhyiddin claimed to have the support to form a government, although they did not reveal which parties they were allied with.
Muhyiddin said he hopes to finish the discussions by Sunday afternoon. His alliance is a junior partner in the governing coalition of incumbent Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and could work with it again.
Anwar said he would submit a letter to Malaysia’s King Al-Sultan Abdullah outlining his support.
If Anwar lands the top job, it would complete a remarkable journey for a politician who has risen in 25 years from heir apparent to prime minister, to prisoner convicted of sodomy and to the country’s leading opposition figure.
Since 2015, Malaysian politics has been overshadowed by the 1MDB corruption scandal, in which billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money were embezzled from the country. It brought down former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is now serving a 12-year prison sentence on corruption charges.
Three prime ministers have ruled the Southeast Asian country since a feverish election with record turnout on the key issue of corruption was held four years ago.
Malaysia has 222 seats in Parliament, but only 220 were elected on Saturday.
The Electoral Commission said Anwar’s multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition won a total of 82 seats, while Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional alliance won 73 seats. Ismail’s Barisan coalition got 30. One seat was unannounced as of 2100 GMT.
“The key takeaway from this election is that Perikatan successfully disrupted the two-party system,” said Adib Zalkapli, a director at political consultancy Bower Group Asia.
Barisan and Pakatan have long been the main blocs of Malaysia.
Barisan said it accepts the people’s decision but stops conceding defeat. The coalition said in a statement it remains committed to forming a stable government.
Veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad, meanwhile, suffered his first electoral defeat in 53 years in a blow that could spell the end of a seven-decade political career, losing his seat to Muhyiddin’s coalition.
A record number of Malaysians voted on Saturday hoping to end a wave of political uncertainty that has resulted in three prime ministers amid uncertain economic times and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The political landscape has been rocky since Barisan lost the 2018 election after ruling by independence for 60 years.
Anwar made a name for himself as a student activist in various Muslim youth groups in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1960s, as the country was rocked by the protracted communist insurgency of the Malayan Emergency.
Arrested during student protests against rural poverty in 1974, Anwar was sentenced to 20 months in prison. Despite his scorching reputation, he later confounded liberal supporters in 1982 by joining the conservative United Malays National Organization (UMNO), led by Mahathir.
The released politician was then Prime Minister Mahathir’s heir until 1998, when he was sacked and charged with corruption and sodomy. The following year he was found guilty, a decision that led to mass demonstrations in the streets.
The sodomy conviction was overturned, but the corruption conviction was never overturned, preventing him from running for political office until a decade later.
In 2008, when his ban on political participation was lifted, he faced further charges of sodomy.
After an appeal against the acquittal of those charges, he was retried and imprisoned in 2015. Human rights groups were highly critical when the conviction was upheld, calling it politically motivated, a claim the government denied.
Anwar was released from prison in 2018 after joining forces with old enemies 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 over a dispute over a promise by Mahathir to hand over the post of prime minister to Anwar. Muhyiddin briefly became prime minister, but his government collapsed last year, paving the way for Barisan’s return to power with Ismail at the helm.