Opposition Party Building and Electoral Competition in Authoritarian Regimes: The Case of Malaysia

Supporters of Mahathir Mohamad, chairman of Malaysia's opposition 'Pakatan Harapan' (The Alliance of Hope) attend an election campaign rally on May 6, 2018 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Supporters of Mahathir Mohamad, chairman of Malaysia's opposition Pakatan Harapan (The Alliance of Hope) attend an election campaign rally on May 6, 2018 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In a stunning election upset, the 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad defeated incumbent Najib Razak's ruling coalition to become the world's oldest elected leader. Ulet Ifansasti / Stringer via Getty Images
As a 2018-19 Postdoctoral Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, I have been working on my book manuscript Pathways to Power: Opposition Party and Coalition Building in Multiethnic Malaysia. The book examines the dilemmas faced by opposition parties in authoritarian regimes as they try to build electoral and political power. In this brief blog post, I’ll discuss the motivation for the book project, the main argument, and some of its findings.
Competitive authoritarian regimes, where opposition parties compete against powerful incumbents that skew political and electoral institutions in their favor, are the most common type of non-democratic regime today. As conceptualized by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, competitive authoritarian regimes feature the trappings of democracy, including regular elections and multiparty political competition, but with an electoral playing field that heavily favors the ruling government. Ruling powers in these regimes use a variety of tools to stay in power, including electoral fraud, targeted arrests or harassment of opposition leaders, and subtler strategies to divide and coopt potential opposition.
Nevertheless, opposition parties in such regimes sometimes succeed in growing substantial electoral support against the authoritarian odds. My book analyzes how and why some opposition parties are able to do so – and provides a novel explanation for the conditions under which opposition parties build broad-based and coordinated electoral challenges. I examine two key electoral strategies used by opposition parties: Individual strategies used by parties to win over new voters from the ruling government, and collective strategies, where opposition parties coordinate or build coalitions with each other in elections. Even as these two strategies allow parties to win over new blocs of voters away from the ruling government, I focus on the dilemmas that these strategies create for the opposition. First, parties face different constraints in trying to appeal to new voters while maintaining the issues and identities around which they mobilize core support. Second, individual and collective electoral strategies are in fundamental tension with each other. When parties coordinate with each other in elections, I argue that they are less likely to broaden their individual base of support. As a result, coordination and coalition building constrains the ability of individual parties to develop a broad base of support across territory and among new demographics.
The manuscript examines these dilemmas through tracing opposition party emergence and growth in Malaysia. Malaysia is an interesting and important case for several reasons. First, a single party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), dominated the country’s ruling coalitions from the country’s independence in 1957 until 2018. But against this backdrop of extraordinary stability, Malaysia’s opposition parties gradually built up electoral power to the point of unseating UMNO from national power for the first time in 2018. Second, Malaysia is a country of incredible diversity: Its largest ethnic group, the Malays, makes up about half of the population, and it contains significant ethnic minority populations of Chinese, Indian, and other indigenous groups. This made the challenges faced by the opposition even more pronounced as they sought to expand support across ethnoreligious lines while also building cross-cleavage coalitions. I draw on diverse evidence from my fieldwork in Malaysia, including in-depth interviews with party elites and leaders from all major parties, data on elections at the subnational and national level, as well as evidence from political campaigns, party congresses, and archival research.
The empirical chapters trace the strategies of four opposition parties: The Democratic Action Party (DAP), Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), The People’s Justice Party (PKR), and The United Indigenous Party of Malaysia (Bersatu) in the period of 1999-2018 as they sought to respond to new electoral opportunities to scale up their support. I examine their varying attempts to expand their individual appeal, while showing how their increasingly coordinated electoral challenges paradoxically strengthened their reliance on existing ethnoreligious bases of support. I analyze how these strategies set the stage for their success in the 2018 elections, where three of these four parties won power and formed a new national government. Another empirical chapter brings the theoretical argument to bear on additional cases, providing an in-depth examination of three other cases of authoritarian regimes to demonstrate the generalizability of the argument beyond Malaysia. 
The book seeks to make three contributions to the academic literature. First, it brings a new theoretical perspective to the study of political competition under authoritarianism that sheds light on the determinants of opposition party success and failure. Second, it provides evidence and analysis of the factors leading to Malaysia’s unprecedented transition of government in 2018. Finally, it provides new insights into a broader literature on party adaptation in multiethnic societies and the study of the relationship between opposition parties and democratic transition.