Parliamentary democracy is a strange beast.
With first-past-the-post rules, the party who wins the most votes, or even the most seats, may not necessarily be declared the winner of a general election.
Take a look at the results of the Malaysian general election that took place on Nov. 19.
None of the major coalitions won enough seats in parliament to form an outright majority on their own. The magic number is 112, i.e. half of the 222 total seats, plus one more.
So even though Pakatan Harapan, under Anwar Ibrahim, won the most number of seats, they are not the outright winners of this election.
Some form of alliance and cooperation must happen between the various coalitions before a new Malaysian government can be formed.
I get by with a little help from my friends
The path forward for Anwar may seem simple. Ally with a few others, and reach the magic 112 mark.
But that sounds easier than it actually is.
Muhyiddin Yassin, the leader of the next largest coalition, Perikatan Nasional (PN), declared early this morning (Nov. 20) that he is open to working with others, but "not PH".
Similarly, a senior Barisan Nasional figure stated early this morning that they will not work with PH either.
Perikatan Nasional's chances of forming a government got a boost when the leader of Gabungan Parti Sarawak, Abang Johari Openg, flew to Peninsular Malaysia early on Nov. 20 to meet with Muhyiddin.
As Johari controls over 20 seats, his support is invaluable.
Meeting with Muhyiddin first can't have been a good sign for Anwar and PH supporters.
But how did PN, and its component Malaysian Islamist Party (PAS) in particular, do so well in the election?
Why did Barisan Nasional do so badly?
The once mighty Barisan Nasional, which governed Malaysia in some fashion from independence to 2018, was thoroughly rejected by the voters.
While 2018 was a shock result, seeing them lose power for the first time, they won far fewer seats in 2022.
There could be several reasons for voter dissatisfaction with BN, because Umno party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi seemed determined to provide them.
The Monsoon election
First, he pushed for an early general election after BN's success in the Johor state election, even though it would mean voting during Malaysia's monsoon season.
The axeing of the warlords
Next, Zahid dropped many of Umno's long-serving 'warlords', influential MPs in their individual constituencies, from standing in the election.
The fact that most of those dropped were not aligned with Zahid's faction within the party was of course, no doubt a mere coincidence, as his supporters would say.
Some of those dropped even decided to contest the election as independent candidates, against their former party.
The Najib factor
Zahid also set tongues wagging when a letter was leaked. It purportedly required BN candidates to support him as prime minister, and not the caretaker incumbent, Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
While Zahid and BN denied the authenticity of the letter, it painted a picture of a man moving behind the scenes to secure power.
Zahid is still facing corruption charges, and a verdict is expected in the coming months.
The Umno president's legal troubles and close ties with Najib Razak may have reminded voters of the taint of the 1MDB financial scandal.
As for the much ballyhooed Najib factor, it completely failed to materialise.
Pakatan Harapan failed to gain new ground
But Pakatan Harapan didn't seem to have gained from BN's heavy losses. They secured fewer seats (82) than they had when parliament was dissolved in October (90).
Although they took some big scalps, like caretaker Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, some of their own big names also fell, including former Education Minister Maszlee Malik and Anwar's own daughter, Nurul Izzah.
During the campaign, PH came under sustained attack by both BN and PN, including dipping into religious matters.
They were also slammed for their 22 months in power, with the public at the time unhappy with PH's record, particularly component party DAP.
Going into the election, it was PH's best bet to win a majority outright, given their difficulties in making alliances with others.
As the dust settled, it seemed that Anwar would miss out -- yet again -- on his chance to become prime minister, despite his claim that he had the support to form a government.
PN's pitch of 'Concerned, Clean, Stable" may have won over voters
But while it may be enough to give the voters something to vote against, it's easier to give voters something to vote for.
Zahid derided PN's "Concerned, Clean, Stable" party slogan, but it may have worked with voters wanting political stability after years of chaos.
After all, since 2018, Malaysians had to deal with three different governments. From PH, to a Bersatu-dominated government with Muhyiddin at the helm, to a Barisan-dominated government with Umno in control.
Each of these governments had their own troubles to deal with, with the inter-coalition bickering between Mahathir and the rest of PH, Muhyiddin and the Covid-19 pandemic, and high inflation plaguing Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
Muhyiddin's good performance during Covid-19 pandemic
But Muhyiddin's track record as the man in charge when Covid-19 gripped the nation may have boosted his national profile among voters.
After all, Malaysia emerged from the pandemic with a lower fatality rate when compared to the rest of the world, thanks to early preparation, a high standard of hospitals and healthcare, and strict movement control restrictions.
While some world leaders were blamed for poor performance during the pandemic, like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Malaysia's success may have translated into support for Muhyiddin.
He even made it a badge of accomplishment during the election campaign, saying that he was proud to be called the "father of MCO (movement control order)", as it saved many lives.
PN and TikTok, the unlikely winning combo
PAS, the green-hued Islamist party, only won 18 seats in 2018.
This time, they won at least a whopping 44 seats, the most number of seats won by any single party.
An expert that The Straits Times spoke to before the election commented that Perikatan Nasional was "dominating" the platform, with BN and PH not having much of a presence.
Lesser of three evils?
So picture this.
You're an average Malaysian voter. You've traditionally supported Barisan Nasional, but this time, you're fed up with them for a number of reasons. Maybe you're annoyed about having to vote during a monsoon.
And for one reason or another, you refuse to vote for Pakatan Harapan, perhaps worried they could collapse after a couple of years, like they did in 2020.
Meanwhile, Perikatan Nasional promises stability, having performed well during the Covid-19 pandemic. And their TikTok videos are all the rage.
A columnist for The Star also conjectured that voters who rejected BN did not turn to the multi-racial PH, but instead embraced PN, "centred around race and religion".
That may have tipped the balance for PN, and that may be why we'll see Muhyiddin Yassin appointed as Malaysia's 10th prime minister.
Top image from The Edge Malaysia Facebook post.