Power Transition in Malaysia: A Messy Mosaic

Political ructions over the weekend have pulled the rug on Pakatan Harapan’s control over state legislatures

Francis E. Hutchinson

Kevin Zhang

27 February 2020

The political tsunami that engulfed Malaysia over the weekend has led to more aftershocks. Much attention this week has been focussed on which coalition can secure a majority in parliament to take over or retain Putrajaya. What has been less discussed is how the historic collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition will reconfigure the current crop of state government administrations across the country.

State administrations, like their national counterpart, are delicately balanced. If things do not go according to PH’s favour, the diminished coalition could lose its hold on as many as five such legislatures.

In the 2018 elections, Barisan Nasional (BN) retained control of Pahang and Perlis. Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) expanded from its stronghold of Kelantan into Terengganu, and Sarawak left BN to become an independent state government. However, PH was the big winner, increasing its state governments from two (Selangor and Penang) to eight. This comprised a swathe of states from Kedah in the north to Johor in the south, as well as Sabah (in an informal alliance with Warisan) in East Malaysia.

On Monday, the PH’s collapse was triggered by the shock withdrawal of PBBM and a faction of PKR from the coalition. As a result, the balance of power in many of these states may shift back to groupings centred on BN. Several state legislatures could fall under the sole control of BN; its larger sibling Muafakat Nasional, comprised of BN and PAS, or Perikatan Nasional (BN, PAS, PPBM, and the ex-PKR splinter group).

Based on currently available information, of the eight state governments, three can be expected to remain solidly in PH: Selangor, Penang, and Negri Sembilan. The same cannot be said for PH in the other five states.

Even if PH were to retain its grip on federal government, a change of administration in Johor, Perak, Melaka and Kedah may severely impede Putrajaya’s ability to implement effective economic development projects across Malaysia

Despite his allegiance to Azmin Ali, the former PKR Deputy President, Amirudin Shari, the Chief Minister of Selangor, has declared that the state government will remain under the control of PH. At present, PH retains 45 seats out of the 56-seat state assembly – 20 of which are held by PKR assemblymen. PPBM and UMNO each have five seats, and PAS one. Assuming the remaining PKR faction within PH remains cohesive, the current administration will remain.

Penang is unlikely to be affected by the current realignments, as the Democratic Action Party (DAP) alone has 19 seats – almost half of the state assembly’s total of 40. With Parti Amanah Negara’s two seats, a majority is secured. It is improbable that all of Penang’s 14 PKR assemblymen would follow Azmin’s tracks. Hence, the state is secure.

The situation is similar in Selangor. Available evidence indicates that the PKR faction in Negri Sembilan will remain in PH. Thus, PH will retain 20 seats in the 36-member state assembly, hence retaining power.

However, the situation is much less positive for PH in the other five states.

In Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s home state of Kedah, the PH was much more dependent on PPBM and PKR to maintain a slim majority in the 36-seat state assembly. DAP, Amanah and PKR account for thirteen seats. With Bersatu commanding six seats, PH held 19 state seats – a wafer-thin majority. However, given that this is Mahathir’s home state, it is unlikely that all or even most PPBM members will withdraw their support from the incumbent administration. If all PPBM assemblymen stay with PH, the administration will retain its hold on power. It was reported on Monday (25 Feb) that it remains “business as usual” in the state. Kedah state councillor Simon Ooi said Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir would hold an executive committee meeting later in the day.

The situation in Perak is similarly tenuous. With the potential loss of two PPBM members, PH will have 28 assemblymen, which does not constitute a majority in the 59-seat state assembly. Indeed, even without any cross-overs, PAS and UMNO also have 28 members between them. Thus, the balance of power depends on the decisions of three assemblymen – the two PPBM members and one independent assemblymen.

For its part, Melaka has fallen. Prior to Monday’s political ructions, the 28-seat state legislature was in near-balance – the PH coalition, including 2 Bersatu assemblymen, commanded 15 seats, with BN holding 13. With the departure of the 2 Bersatu state assemblymen from the PH coalition, PH’s grip on power has been lost. Consequently, Chief Minister Adly Zahari announced his resignation on Tuesday (25 Feb), ostensibly on Twitter. To make matters worse, there are indications that PH’s hold on the remaining 13 seats is not secure. Two out of the three PKR assembly members are said to be aligned to former PKR supremo Azmin.

Down south, Johor looks set to suffer the same fate. Assuming that all 11 PPBM state representatives leave PH – which is likely given that it is the home turf of Muhyiddin Yassin who announced the party’s departure from the coalition – PH and the coalition comprising BN, PAS and Bersatu will both have 28 seats each. There are rumours that one PKR member will cross the floor. The Johor palace was reported as saying earlier today (27 Feb) that a new coalition government will be taking over.

Across the sea in Sabah, the situation remains similarly fluid. PH-friendly Warisan has 33 members in the 60-seat state legislature, with all other parties having a small number of seats. Thus, the future of the state is entirely dependent on what party leader and Chief Minister Shafie Apdal will do. Given the importance of local issues pertaining to autonomy, language, and the right of the resource-rich state, his decision will be dependent on what each of the two coalitions can offer. Essentially, he will gravitate to the highest bidder.

Under Malaysia’s federal-state system, state administrations retain the sole authority in determining matters with regard to land use. Large scale federal-funded development projects typically require cooperation from state administrations to issue land approvals. Even if PH were to retain its grip on federal government, a change of administration in Johor, Perak, Melaka and Kedah may severely impede Putrajaya’s ability to implement effective economic development projects across Malaysia. 

Malaysia’s political earthquake has caused tremors across the country’s various states, and the foundations of Pakatan Harapan’s state administrations are cracking. It will take some time before one gets a clearer picture of the messy mosaic of Malaysian politics.

Dr Francis E. Hutchinson is a Senior Fellow and coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme (MSP) at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Mr Kevin Zhang is a Research Associate at ISEAS.

ISEAS Commentary – 2020/20

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.