Malaysian state polls: Winners, losers and those who must do better

The results have been termed a status quo because both sides held on to their respective strongholds of three states each, after seven million votes were cast.


The results have been termed a status quo because both the PH-led unity government and PN held on to their respective strongholds of three states each. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG/THE STRAITS TIMES

August 15, 2023

KUALA LUMPUR – As the dust settles on what Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim called a heated campaign for control of six of Malaysia’s 13 states, politicians are now trying to control the narrative of the “3-3” outcome.

The results have been termed a status quo because both sides held on to their respective strongholds of three states each, after seven million votes were cast at Saturday’s polls, less than nine months after the last general election.

But while Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan stayed with parties from Datuk Seri Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan-led unity government with less sterling majorities than enjoyed previously, the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition resoundingly defended Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, ceding just five state assembly seats of the 113 contested.

As a result, some individuals and parties have emerged from the two-week electoral battle either smelling of roses or licking their wounds. There are also others who will need to step up their game if they are to have a political future.

Here are the winners, losers and those who must do better ahead of the next general election.

Winner: Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS)

PAS has shown that it is by far the stronger party in the PN alliance, even though it is Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, led by former premier Muhyiddin Yassin, which helms the coalition.

PAS led the campaign in the north where, save for one seat in Kelantan, it wiped out old foe Umno, and also provided most of the troops that led to PN’s gains across all six states. It won a stunning 105 of the 127 seats it contested for a best-ever 83 per cent win rate.

The inroads it made into the western states of Penang, Selangor and even Negeri Sembilan – where it barely had any presence before – have cemented its place as a mainstream national party.

While it is accused of espousing divisive race and religious rhetoric, the party showed during this campaign that it can speak on developmental politics and welfare, even if its technocrats have yet to match those in the Anwar administration.

Loser: Umno

At the other end of the spectrum is Umno, which won just over 17 per cent of the seats it contested and dropped to having 19 assemblymen, from 41, in these six states.

Opinions within the once-dominant party on what went wrong and the way forward are diverse, ranging from calling for Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi to resign as party president, to pointing out a lack of cohesion in the Umno-led Barisan Nasional’s (BN) cooperation with Pakatan Harapan (PH).

“To chase 500 DAP votes, we lost 5,000 Malay votes in the process. If we lose our grassroots, the party will be dead,” Umno supreme council member Isham Jalil claimed. He was referring to the Democratic Action Party, the largest party in PH and a former Umno foe.

But Tengku Zafrul Aziz, a fellow council member and the Investment Trade and Industry Minister, called the result “a final warning for Umno’s political survival”.

“Umno doesn’t belong to any clique. I hope the party leadership is roused to correct our course, not just chasing short-term power but also to regain the trust of the public and our own grassroots,” he said.

Must do better: Datuk Seri Azmin Ali

A meteoric rise since 2014 saw Mr Azmin become Selangor Menteri Besar and then a senior minister for the economy, before crashing to a defeat at last November’s general election by his chief minister successor Amirudin Shari.

The Selangor PN chief remains in the game after eking out a hard-fought win in the Hulu Kelang seat, but his colleagues fell short of their aim of ending Mr Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s (PKR) 15-year rule in the state.

The gains made by the PN opposition coalition in Malaysia’s richest state does put Mr Azmin in good stead for the next general election, due by 2027. But if he fails to galvanise the troops by then, it could mean his name dropping out of the list of possible future prime ministers.

Winner: Datuk Seri Sanusi Md Nor

Undoubtedly the star of the state polls, Kedah Menteri Besar Sanusi’s influence was felt nationwide as Malaysians tuned in to watch his packed rallies and listen to his speeches that were peppered with colourful language.

Despite being bombarded with allegations of corruption and hauled to court for sedition on claims that he insulted Selangor’s ruler, the PAS election director still presided over a 33-to-three-seat win in Kedah that put paid to PM Anwar’s claim that PH could potentially wrest the northern state.

These attacks have made a martyr out of Mr Sanusi, whose fortunes in PAS are set to soar and position him for national leadership.

Must do better: Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim

The polls were supposed to be a referendum on Mr Anwar’s leadership, and the status quo outcome has bought him some time. So far, his unity government looks stable as there is little momentum from the opposition to engineer an exodus of parties from his coalition.

But the significant gains by the Malay-Muslim nationalist PN leave him in a quandary, after he had already surprised his more liberal supporters by rolling out more Islamic policies.

The PH-BN alliance’s share of the Malay vote shrank, while reports claim that non-Malay voter turnout was low, signalling disenchantment with the Anwar administration.

It remains to be seen if the Premier will now lean further towards religious conservatism in the hope of regaining Malay support, or if he will instead show the political will needed to make sweeping policy reforms to propel the economy, address inequality and high youth unemployment, and boost development in rural regions.

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