KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia plunged into fresh political turmoil on Sunday after hard-fought general elections left a hung parliament with no clear winner and a surprise surge in support for an Islamist party.
The reform alliance of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim secured the largest gain with 82 of 220 parliamentary seats, but fell far short of a majority. Close behind was former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Malaysian Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, with 73 seats.
The United Malays National Organization-led coalition, which ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain until 2018, fared worse than in recent polls, with upsets in a number of seats in a clear sign of rejection by Malaysians who opted for Muhyiddin’s block. It won only 30 seats.
Another key electoral loser was two-time former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who at 97 is leading his own Malaysian movement.
Many rural Malays, who make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, including large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, fear they could lose their rights with greater pluralism. This, along with corruption in UMNO, has benefited Muhyiddin’s bloc. Their ally, the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), emerged as the top winner. It has more than doubled its reach to 43 seats, making it the largest single party in the country. The PAS, which promotes Sharia, rules three states and has a strong Muslim base.
Mahathir lost his northern Langkawi island seat in a shock defeat to Muhyiddin’s bloc. Anwar, 75, won in northern Perak state.
“Malaysians who dislike UMNO switched to PAS as they could never accept Harapan, which they felt was too liberal and accommodating towards non-Malaysians,” said Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
The result will now be horse-trading as both Muhyiddin and Anwar compete to form a government. They will need support from two blocs on the island of Borneo, which together hold 28 seats. Ironically, UMNO has now also become kingmaker.
Anwar told a news conference that he had received written support from the legislature to secure a simple majority. He said this must be brought to the country’s king, who will have the final say.
“We got the majority…majority means more than 111,” he said.
Muhyiddin, meanwhile, said he had received a letter from the palace suggesting his bloc may have been given preference to form a government over Anwar. He said he was confident he could form a stable government and was willing to work with anyone but Harapan.
UMNO leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in a statement that his alliance accepted the findings. He said the Front National was willing to put differences aside to ensure a stable government could be formed, but gave no further details.
Elections for two federal seats were postponed after the death of a candidate in one constituency and inclement weather in another.
The economy and the rising cost of living have been voters’ top concerns, although many are apathetic over the political turmoil that has led to three prime ministers since the 2018 polls.
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Anger at government corruption had led to UMNO’s shocking defeat in 2018 at the hands of Anwar’s bloc, which saw the first regime change since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. The turning point polls had raised hopes for reform as once-powerful UMNO leaders were jailed or tried for bribery. But political cunning and defection from Muhyiddin’s party led to the collapse of the government after 22 months.
UMNO rebounded as part of a new government with Muhyiddin’s bloc, but internal fighting led to continued turmoil.
Associated Press video journalist Joeal Calupitan, based in Subang Jaya, Malaysia, contributed to this report.