by M. Jegathesan and Martin Abbugao, with Syafique Shuib in Bera and Patrick Lee in Permatang Pauh
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said Sunday his coalition had mustered enough seats to form the country’s next government after a hotly contested general election, potentially paving the way for him to become prime minister.
However, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin – who heads the rival Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) grouping – said he too was in talks to form the next government after Saturday’s election, with no outright winner emerging.
Analysts have warned that the multi-racial country, Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy, could face further political instability if there is no clear winner and if coalition-building talks took time.
“We have now the majority to form a government,” Anwar told reporters at a dawn news conference after hours of frenzied horse-trading negotiations through the night.
When pressed about who would enter into an alliance with him, the 75-year-old Anwar did not name names, but said their commitments were made in writing which will be submitted to the king for endorsement.
“Majority means more than 111,” he said.
With votes for all 219 contested seats counted, Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition won 82 and Muhyiddin grabbed 73, official results showed.
The once mighty Barisan Nasional – dominated by jailed ex-leader Najib Razak’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party – trailed far behind with 30, official results showed.
Smaller regional parties, including those in Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo island, are the ones expected to become kingmakers.
There were supposed to be 222 seats at stake, but two candidates died and voting in one district was suspended due to bad weather.
“We are willing to work with any party,” Muhyiddin told reporters at a buoyant press conference.
But Anwar claimed it would be “impossible” for Muhyiddin’s bloc to form a majority.
One of the biggest casualties of the election was former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 97, who was roundly defeated in his constituency.
Anwar campaigned on a promise to fight corruption in Malaysia, where people are struggling with soaring food prices, and where Najib’s graft-tainted party had hoped to cement its grip on power.
With age catching up, this may be his last chance to fulfil his 20-year dream of leading Malaysia.
“A win today would certainly be gratifying after more than two decades of fighting to win the hearts and minds of the people,” Anwar told AFP before casting his vote in Penang state.
Anwar, a perennial runner-up in Malaysian politics, endured two prison terms and had been on the cusp of power a few times in his long struggle for the country’s top job.
Voter turnout was high – two hours before polling closed, it was already at 70 per cent – and those who spoke to AFP said they hoped for political stability and economic improvement.
“I want a strong government and a stable economy so that there will be more job opportunities for the youth,” Nurul Hazwani Firdon, a 20-year-old tutor, said as she went to cast her ballot in the rural town of Bera in Pahang state.
Social media posts showed people lining up in knee-deep waters outside a voting centre in Sarawak state on Borneo island.
The latest results represented the latest humiliation for UMNO at the hands of voters, after it suffered a stunning defeat in the 2018 general election due to anger over the 1MDB scandal.
Najib, who was at the centre of the storm, is currently serving a 12-year jail term.
Because of infighting in the two successive governments since 2018, UMNO crept back into power last year despite lingering corruption allegations, and had sought a stronger mandate from the election — called 10 months ahead of schedule.
Corruption A Key Issue
Corruption was a key issue during the campaign, with opposition parties repeatedly warning that if UMNO wins, Najib could walk free and graft charges against other party leaders could be dropped.
The 1MDB scandal – in which billions of dollars in state funds were diverted to Beverly Hills properties, a superyacht, a Hollywood film and Najib’s own bank account – sparked investigations in Singapore, Switzerland and the United States.
Malaysia lowered its voting age from 21 to 18 last year, a move that added six million voters to the rolls for this election.
Nearly 1.4 million of total registered voters are aged 18-20.
Analysts have said young voters lean towards the opposition’s more progressive politics.