Malaysia’s political leaders were scrambling to form a coalition government on Sunday after an election produced an unprecedented hung parliament, with no group able to claim a majority.
Longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin each said they could form a government with support from other parties, whom they did not identify. Muhyiddin said he hoped to conclude talks by Sunday afternoon, although negotiations could take days.
Here is what is happening and what to expect:
Anwar’s multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition won 82 seats in the lower house, short of the 112 needed for a majority but ahead of Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional alliance with 73 and Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s Barisan Nasional with 30.
Muhyiddin’s alliance, which includes an Islamist party that has touted sharia Islamic law for the Southeast Asian nation, emerged as a third major bloc, dividing votes more than had been expected.
It made inroads in strongholds of Barisan, whose United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – long Malaysia’s dominant political force – made its worst showing ever.
Analysts say the most likely government will again be a coalition of Muhyiddin’s bloc, Barisan and another group. But a minority government is possible if neither Anwar nor Muhyiddin can cobble together a majority.
Muhyiddin, who said he is open to working with any party but Anwar’s, said on Sunday he would discuss partnerships with regional parties in Sabah and Sarawak states on Borneo island.
Anwar did not say whom he would work with. In an interview with Reuters this month, he ruled out partnering with Muhyiddin’s and Ismail’s coalitions, citing fundamental differences.
Muhyiddin and Ismail’s coalition prioritise interests of the ethnic-Malay majority, while Anwar’s is multicultural. Race and religion are divisive issues in Malaysia, where the mostly Muslim Malays comprise the majority, with minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians.
King Al-Sultan Abdullah could potentially pick the next prime minister.
The monarch has a largely ceremonial role, but the constitution empowers him to appoint as prime minister a lawmaker who he thinks can command a majority in parliament.
Malaysian kings – the post rotates among the sultans of the states – have rarely exercised that power, but they have become more influential in recent years amid the political wrangling.
In 2020, when the government of veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad collapsed, King Al-Sultan chose Muhyiddin as premier after interviewing all 222 lawmakers to decide who had majority support. When Muhyiddin’s bloc also collapsed, he chose Ismail.
Muhyiddin said on Sunday he had received instructions from the palace on forming a government but did not disclose what they were. Anwar said he would submit a letter to the king detailing his support.
Political instability is expected to continue for Malaysia, which has seen three prime ministers in as many years due to power struggles.
The country is adapting to the diminishing power of the UMNO and the Barisan coalition, which had ruled uninterrupted for 60 years from independence until 2018.
The next coalition will not have a convincing majority and could be plagued with more infighting, hurting the economy.
Voters, frustrated with the instability, may bristle at a new government if it includes the losing parties.