Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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For six decades after its independence in 1957, Malaysia was governed by a single party. Then in 2018 voters ejected the United Malays National Organisation, appalled by the involvement of the prime minister, Najib Razak, in a scandal related to a $4.5bn heist of public funds. Ever since, the country has been in political disarray, churning through four prime ministers. A unity government led by Anwar Ibrahim, cobbled together after messy elections last November, is the latest effort to restore stability. Mr Anwar faced his first serious electoral test on August 12th, when elections took place for six of Malaysia’s 13 state governments.

He must be relieved. His governing alliance, dominated by his reform-minded Pakatan Harapan coalition and its former rival, Barisan Nasional, held on to three of the six states. The main opposition Perikatan Nasional, a pro-Malay coalition, won the other three states, which it also formerly controlled. State elections have no bearing on the composition of the national parliament. Yet had Mr Anwar’s alliance lost any states, some of the unity government’s 19 constituent parties might have considered withdrawing from it. Given the volatility of Malaysian politics, that might have caused the government to collapse.

Still, Mr Anwar is under pressure from his conservative opponents. They framed the state elections as a religious struggle. “To gain political power, Muslims must go out to vote. Fulfil your duty of voting to defend Islam,” wrote Hadi Awang, a veteran opposition leader and president of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), on Instagram. The opposition tightened its grip in its ethnic-Malay stronghold and gained significant ground in some of Mr Anwar’s power bases. PAS, which is campaigning for an Islamic state, is on the march. Islam is Malaysia’s official religion and all Malays, who make up two-thirds of the country’s 33m people, are by law Muslim.

Many Malays consider Mr Anwar (who is Malay) too liberal. In the run-up to the state elections, he, therefore, courted the Malay vote, including by banning rainbow-coloured Swatch watches imprinted with the LGBTQ acronym. Anyone caught selling or wearing such a watch faces up to three years in prison. Mr Anwar also lashed out at a high-school student who questioned the preferential treatment afforded to bumiputras, people of Malay or indigenous descent, when applying to university. Revealingly, Mr Anwar said he would lose all future elections if Malaysia’s university admissions process was meritocratic.

Inflation, corruption and economic growth were the biggest issues for many voters, according to the Merdeka Centre, a pollster. Malaysia’s economy grew by over 8% in 2022—its fastest annual pace in more than two decades. Yet the country is beset by economic worries. Its population is rapidly ageing and subject to brain drain, as talented Malaysians, frustrated by racially divisive policies, up sticks to fairer societies. The pro-Malay opposition sought to link economic and religious concerns by arguing that economic policies should be centred on Islam. Its electoral successes suggest that the message was worryingly popular.

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