Final say on election candidates at heart of dispute over formalising Malaysia's ruling pact

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) has yet to be registered as an official entity. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's ruling parties are at odds over which flag to fly at polls expected as soon as the end of the year, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) yet to be registered as an official entity.

At stake is not just which symbols and logos would be more amenable to voters, but who ultimately signs off on candidates for 222 parliamentary and up to 587 state seats that are up for grabs.

Umno leaders have pointed to a slew of recent by-election victories under their existing Barisan Nasional (National Front) flag that most parties currently in government have used for nearly half a century, insisting that the party should retain the "scale" logo - symbolising fairness and equality - which is probably the most recognisable in the country.

The chairman of BN - which was in power for decades until its shock defeat at the 2018 election - is Umno president Zahid Hamidi, and the position gives him massive influence in ongoing negotiations among the ruling parties as they prepare for elections to end the instability stemming from the slimmest majority a Malaysian government has ever held.

"Everyone wants the final say on candidates. For example, former BN parties in Sarawak and Sabah that broke away after 2018 no longer need the BN chief's signature. But then what logo are they going to use when their supporters have always voted for the scales?" a PN official told The Straits Times.

But Umno has also inked an official political pact with the Islamist PAS. The Muafakat Nasional (National Consensus) between the nation's largest party and its former nemesis has been credited with galvanising the Malay majority and delivering victories to BN candidates in all but one of the seven by-elections since 2019.

It is unlikely that the ruling PN will go into elections under the MN as non-Malay parties would baulk at the suggestion. But the alliance aimed at championing Malay and Islamic interests meets regularly and has coordinated their machineries at the grassroots, making it a powerful force at the bargaining tables.

In contrast, Tan Sri Muhyiddin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia is pushing hard for PN to become a registered coalition, ostensibly with the premier as its chief.

But early this month, Umno deputy president Mohamad Hasan revealed that along with PAS and Bersatu, the three Malay parties have set up a committee to look into various options such as "whether to empower MN, meaning Bersatu joins MN, with PN as a grand coalition along with partners in Sabah and Sarawak".

"At the very latest, polls should be held by the end of the year. Do we have enough time to come up with a new logo in five months? Let's not trouble ourselves. The easiest is to use what is already available and just polish up the branding," he said.

On July 12, Umno advisory council chairman Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah revealed that many of the party's MPs "are not agreeable (to registering PN) as they are used to BN".

This comes as seat negotiations are heating up, with Umno, Bersatu and PAS representatives meeting on Tuesday (July 21) to duke out overlapping claims in at least a quarter of constituencies dominated by the Malay majority.

Whether Umno and PAS go their own way or fall under a Muhyiddin-led umbrella could very well be a key bargaining chip in how these seats are allocated.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.