Before World War II, there was limited political activity in Malaya, but the Japanese occupation and its aftermath brought a new political awareness. Postwar political parties sought independence, and although the Malays feared domination by the populous minorities, particularly the economically stronger Chinese. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the leading Malay party, and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) formed the Alliance Party in 1952. This party was later joined by the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and became the nation's dominant political party. The Malayan Communist Party, a powerful and well-organized group after the war, penetrated and dominated the trade unions. In 1948, after the Communists had resorted to arms, they were outlawed.
In the elections of April 1964, the Alliance Party won a majority of 89 of the 154 House seats. The third general election since independence was held in Peninsular Malaysia on 10 May 1969; in the balloting, the Alliance Party suffered a setback, winning only 66 seats. The election was followed by communal rioting, mainly between Malays and Chinese, resulting in much loss of life and damage to property. The government suspended parliament and declared a state of emergency; elections in Sarawak and Sabah were postponed until July 1970. By the time parliament was reconvened on 22 February 1971, the Alliance had achieved a two-thirds majority (required for the passage of constitutional amendments) with the addition of 10 unopposed seats from Sabah and through a coalition with the Sarawak United People's Party, which controlled 12 seats.
The elections for state assemblies also resulted in a setback for the Alliance Party, which before the elections had controlled 10 of the 13 state assemblies, but after the elections only 7. In September 1970, Tunku Abdul Rahman retired as prime minister and was replaced by the deputy prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak. In 1973, the Alliance Party formed a broader coalition consisting of the UMNO, MCA, MIC, and eight minority parties. Known as the National Front and led by the UMNO, the ruling coalition was returned to power in the 1974, 1978, 1982, and 1986 elections with overwhelming majorities (148 of 177 seats in 1986). The principal opposition parties, which win few seats owing to a legislative apportionment scheme that heavily favors Malay voters, are the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), founded in 1966, and the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party, dedicated to establishing an Islamic state.
In July 1981, Datuk Seri Mahathir bin Mohamad replaced Datuk Hussein bin Onn as prime minister. As of 1986, the National Front also had majorities in 11 of 13 state legislatures; the state assembly of Sabah, the lone exception, was under the control of the Sabah People's Union (Berjaya). In the 1986 elections, Chinese voters moved away from the MCA and toward the DAP. In April 1987, Mahathir narrowly overcame a challenge to his leadership of the UMNO.
As of 2003 there were more than 20 registered parties. The governing coalition is the Barisan Nasional (National Front), led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and comprising 13 other parties, most ethnically based. Major opposition groups are the Muslim Unity Movement (APU), dominated by the Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is predominantly Chinese and socialist, the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), and the newly formed National Justice Party formed by Wan Aziziah Wan Ismail, the wife of jailed government official Anwar Ibrahim.
In the election held 28 and 29 November 1999, the 193 seats of the lower house were distributed as follows: National Front (148 seats), DAP (10), PBS (3), and PAS (27), and Parti Keadilan Nasional (5). In the election, PAS won control of the state governments of Kelantan and Terengganu, giving it two of Malaysia's 13 states. The next elections must be held by 20 December 2004, but because Mahathir has announced he will resign by October 2003, an election is expected to be called before he leaves office in the hope of capitalizing on voters' goodwill towards the UMNO.