Malaysia’s By-Election Win Gives Anwar Government Room to Focus on Policy and Sway Youth, Malays

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s ruling coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), has managed to halt the momentum of its rival, Perikatan Nasional (PN), by securing victory in the recent Kuala Kubu Baharu (KKB) by-election. However, the government still faces the critical task of breaking the opposition’s hold on key voter demographics to secure future national election wins.

PN, which had been gaining ground across various polls in 2023, received 41% of the vote in the May 11 by-election. Despite this, voter statistics indicated PN’s stronghold over two crucial demographics: young voters and the Malay majority, both of which are growing and influential.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s multi-coalition “unity” government must leverage the breathing space earned from this victory to focus on delivering key policies and initiatives that can weaken the opposition’s grip on these voter groups. “The battleground is among the middle ground, especially the Malay middle ground which can be swayed by good leadership, good policies, and good implementation,” stated Selangor Democratic Action Party (DAP) treasurer Ong Kian Ming. Ms. Pang Sock Tao, the DAP candidate, won the KKB seat with a 57% vote share, an increase from the coalition’s 54% in the 2023 state polls.

Despite ongoing concerns about the high cost of living, internal government discord, and stalling reforms, PH’s comfortable win masks the underlying challenge: younger voters aged 40 and below predominantly favored PN. The opposition secured more than 60% of votes from this demographic, although their turnout was lower at about 55% compared to the overall 61%.

Khairul Arifin Mohd Munir, a senior research manager at Selangor’s state-linked think-tank Institut Darul Ehsan (IDE), noted the low-stakes nature of the by-election likely contributed to the lower youth turnout. However, he emphasized the need for the ruling parties to devise strategies aimed at engaging the youth. “In terms of policy, there is nothing attractive being offered to the youth,” echoed Hisomuddin Bakar, executive director of market research firm Ilham Centre.

The youth and Malay voter trends have been consistently deepening over the past year, with PN making significant gains in state elections and various by-elections. These trends suggest that unless PH can shift these dynamics, PN is well-positioned for future electoral success. “PH needs to do more to assuage the fears of the Malay voters and assure them that it is capable of taking care of their economic interests and social well-being,” remarked Dr. Ong, who now heads Taylor’s University’s philosophy, politics, and economics program.

The Anwar administration has announced several economic blueprints and reforms, such as retargeting subsidies, reskilling workers, and increasing wages. However, few of these initiatives have been fully implemented. Meanwhile, government leaders have highlighted a modest increase in PH’s Malay vote share, though PN’s share also increased slightly.

The Malay vote share figures, including votes from police and military personnel who vote earlier, showed a significant swing towards PH after a mid-campaign announcement of a pay hike for civil servants. However, on polling day, PN continued to command the majority of Malay votes.

Dr. Ong suggests that PN could significantly improve its prospects by presenting credible reforms and policies that appeal to voters disillusioned with the Anwar administration’s perceived lack of institutional reforms. As Malaysia prepares for its next national elections, the ability of the ruling coalition to address these challenges and sway key demographics will be crucial in determining its political future.