Malaysian voters erred on the side of conservatism at weekend polls, analysts said – CNBC

'Moderate Malays' will be taken aback by the Malaysian election results, says Najib's brother

It will be a tough road to victory for Malaysia’s reformist party Pakatan Harapan after the weekend’s general elections where voters leaned toward conservative and religious parties, analysts said. 

Malaysia is facing a hung parliament with no clear coalition winner emerging to form a majority government. 

Pakatan Harapan led with 82 seats followed by the incumbent ruling coalition Perikatan Nasional at  73 as candidates and coalitions scrambled on Monday morning to strike deals ahead of a 2 p.m. Singapore/HK time deadline set by the nation’s king. The king subsequently extended the deadline to the same time on Tuesday.

Parties and coalitions must win 112 parliamentary seats out of 222 to form government. 

The largest opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan is led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is looking to become prime minister after being denied the leadership for over two decades. The rival Perikatan Nasional coalition is headed by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of Pakatan Harapan on Monday morning before meeting the king.

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“I think it will be extremely difficult for PH despite it having captured the most number of seats to form or even to join a coalition government,” Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told CNBC. 

“And that it’s because I think there is a form of ‘power,’ that the rich is trying its best to prevent PH from ever coming to run the country.”

He said the opposition group’s “somewhat reformist image … is a distinct threat to the vested interests of the powers that be and I think they would very much like to consolidate interest, and they will not like to be disrupted by PH’s rule.”

Many of the country’s younger voters, including those who are between 18 and 21 years old who are voting for the first time, have also turned toward the more conservative parties despite expectations the demographic group will be more progressive, Oh added, citing the Islamist PAS party and the Bersatu party.

Hopes for reforms to the Malaysian political system dominated by the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition are diminishing after the weekend’s elections, Oh said. 

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While voters abandoned Barisan at the polls — the coalition garnered about 30 seats, less than half the number of seats its rivals won — they did not veer visibly toward PH as results have shown. Instead they have leaned toward more conservatism, Oh said.

“In recent years, there is this awareness that perhaps we should turn away a little bit from this sort of patronage politics, but those who turn away from patronage politics, instead of going towards the more reformist side, they decided, perhaps to go towards more religious, radicalized or extremist sides,” Oh said. 

Former prime minister and long-time statesman Mahathir Mohamad’s historic loss of his seat in Langkawi shows that politics in Malaysia are changing, according to Better Malaysia Assembly advocate and brother of jailed former Prime Minister Najib Razak, Nazir Razak.

Perikatan Nasional (PN) chairman, Muhyiddin Yassin says he may have the numbers to be prime minister.

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“That’s extraordinary. I mean, that’s like saying, you know, people are not voting for brands. They’re voting for what you can deliver for them. So I think politics is changing,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday.

Nazir also said more moderate Malaysian voters were taken aback by the results.

If reformation was what these voters wanted, he added, they would have to “get their act together” and present a better case to the more conservative voters in the north and east, for example. 

The youth vote too had not steered toward a more progressive vote as they too wanted a Malay-led coalition but not one as liberal as Pakatan Harapan, said Nazir.

Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect that Nazir said the youth vote did not steer toward a more progressive vote. An earlier version of the story misrepresented him.

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