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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: April 2020

1 - 9 May 2018: The Unexpected



The results of Malaysia's 14th General Elections (GE-14) held in May 2018 were unexpected and transformative. Against conventional wisdom, the newly reconfigured opposition grouping Pakatan Harapan (PH) decisively defeated the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN), ending six decades of uninterrupted dominant one-party rule.

Despite a long-running financial scandal dogging the ruling coalition, an opposition victory had been all but discarded due to: the advantages of incumbency; fissures amongst opposition ranks well into 2018; and a favourable economic outlook. Indeed, prominent pollsters and commentators predicted a solid BN victory or, at least, a narrow parliamentary majority.

Yet, on the day, deeply rooted political dynamics and influential actors came together, sweeping aside many prevailing assumptions and reconfiguring the country's political reality in the process. Voter turnout was significant, economic handouts were disregarded, and the effects of the redelineation of parliamentary and state constituencies were limited.

Beyond consolidating their support in ethnically mixed, urban areas, PH took most semi-urban areas and made important incursions into rural constituencies in the Peninsula's south and west. In addition to losing their parliamentary majority, BN's seemingly impregnable hold on many state governments was breached, and its East Malaysian fortresses capitulated. In addition, against all predictions, Parti Islam se Malaysia (PAS) thrived, retaining Kelantan, toppling Terengganu and making important inroads in Pahang and Kedah.

Due to its long tenure in power, up until 2018, BN was the only government most Malaysians have ever known. It is formally a parliamentary democracy, but has been variously labelled a semi-democracy (Case 2002), pseudo-democracy (Case 2004) or an electoral authoritarian regime (Ufen 2009). Mostly recently, Lopez and Welsh (2018) labelled it a “resilient regime”, implying one that is strong—though not invincible.

The Alliance-BN's hold on power for more than six decades was aided by massive structural advantages, including deployment of public resources for partisan campaigning, control over mainstream media, and a compliant electoral commission able and willing to tilt the playing field in their favour (Weiss 2014; Ostwald 2017).

These incumbent advantages were demonstrated in the 2013 elections, when expectations of change were dashed and BN held on—despite winning fewer votes than the opposition. These systemic factors, and perhaps recent electoral history, led many commentators to be overly conservative in their analyses of Malaysia's 14th general election (GE-14).