Pathways to Power: Opposition Strategies of Expansion in Malaysia, 1999-2018

Sebastian Dettman

Singapore Management University,Singapore

In 2018, a coalition of opposition parties defeated Malaysia’s National Front (BN) coalition in elections, marking the end to one of the world’s longest-running authoritarian governments. The opposition’s electoral victory, however, was anything but sudden. Instead, it represented a culmination of opposition party strategizing to expand their support within severe authoritarian constraints. This presentation draws from a larger book manuscript on how opposition parties in Malaysia and other competitive authoritarian regimes build broad-based and coordinated electoral challenges. It will draw from a chapter on the expansionary strategies of Malaysia’s opposition, presenting evidence about their strategies during the critical period between 1999 and 2018. It documents the different organizational changes the parties made to incorporate new demographics, changes in the types of candidates run by the parties, and changes in messaging meant to appeal to new demographics. It also uses electoral data at the level polling station to analyze the expansion of the opposition. The manuscript aims to contribute to Malaysia-focused literature on party strategies, and more broadly to the study of party adaptation and opposition strategies in competitive authoritarian regimes.


Sebastian Dettman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University. He received his doctorate from the Department of Government at Cornell University in 2018. He researches party building, electoral competition, and political representation in newly democratic and authoritarian regimes, with a focus on Southeast Asia.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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