KUALA LUMPUR –- Two years after narrowly losing Malaysia’s last elections, and despite the opportunity to capitalize on Prime Minister Najib Razak’s role in an escalating scandal at a state-owned investment company, the country’s opposition coalition appears to have disintegrated.
The opposition’s self-destruction could significantly affect the country’s tense political landscape.
After months of internecine fighting that highlighted some of Malaysia’s long-standing ethnic and religious divisions, the end for the three-party Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) coalition came after a blistering attack on June 15 by the largely ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party on the mainly-Malay Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Malaysian Islamic Party). The Islamic party, commonly known as PAS, had on June 6 voted to sever links with the DAP, meaning the future of the alliance was in doubt before the DAP’s announcement
DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng claimed that PAS was contemplating switching sides to support the governing Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition led by Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Lim accused PAS of breaching promises made to the opposition alliance, which also included the liberal and multi-ethnic Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), founded by jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and commonly referred to as Keadilan.
According to Lim, several agreements between the opposition partners were “violated by PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, which resulted in near-paralysis of the coalition.” Datuk is a Malaysian honorary title.
During an earlier interview in Penang, a wealthy northwestern state where he is also Chief Minister, Lim told the Nikkei Asian Review that “it appears their [PAS’s] heart is no more in Pakatan Rakyat.”
Discord between the two apparently incompatible allies had been growing since the May 2013 elections, with PAS pushing for the implementation of Islamic criminal punishments, or hudud.
Such measures are anathema to the secular DAP, which is the second biggest party in Malaysia’s parliament.
“In stark contrast to the more progressive and politically ambitious elements [of PAS], the conservative elements in PAS stress more on abstract religious aspirations than earthly political democratization,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“This leads inevitably to loggerheads with the secular-minded and ideologically progressive DAP,” Oh told the Nikkei Asian Review.
The coalition’s demise comes four months after Anwar, its leader, was sentenced to five years in jail for allegedly having sexual relations with a male aide. Sodomy is an offence under Malaysian law, but the charge was seen as politically motivated; Anwar was previously exonerated in 2012.
Nural Izzah, Anwar’s 34-year-old daughter and an opposition MP, said the jailing of her father meant that the government “have effectively silenced him.” Nural, who is also a Keadilan vice president, added: “Anwar Ibrahim was pivotal in bringing together very disparate groups. He had the tenacity and patience to bridge that gap.”
In the absence of Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was once a leading member of UMNO, there appears to be no leader of similar stature to bind the three parties or front a cohesive opposition. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, also a MP, leads Keadilan in her husband’s absence.
“It was Anwar, and only Anwar, who can be all things to all people, who could hold together that improbable coalition,” said Clive Kessler, emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of New South Wales, and a long-time Malaysia-watcher.
Under Anwar’s leadership, the opposition coalition had made steady gains in recent years against the ruling BN, which has held power continuously since Malaysian independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. In parliamentary and state government elections in 2008, the opposition parties denied the BN the two-thirds majority in parliament required to change the constitution, and won control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states. In the following elections in 2013, after a fraught campaign, the opposition won 52% of the popular vote, but failed to take power because Malaysia’s constituency-based electoral system allocated a majority of seats to the BN, which won 133 to the opposition’s 87.
The row between PAS and the DAP comes amid rising tensions between Malaysia’s Muslim Malays and other ethnic and religious groups. Malays and indigenous groups account for about 62% of the population, according to the last census in 2010, with ethnic Chinese Malaysians making up 22.5%, and ethnic Indians just over 7%. Muslims — including all Malays, by law — account for 61.3% of the population. Just under 20% are Buddhists, 9.2% Christian, and 6.3% Hindu, according to the same census results.
Voting patterns in the 2013 elections, in which a majority of Chinese-Malaysians voted for the DAP, prompted insinuations of treachery against the ethnic Chinese community from government-backed Malay language newspapers. “The broadcast media continue to play up these racial tensions,” Lim told the NAR.
Commentators said ethnic rivalries were likely to be exacerbated by the opposition’s disintegration, especially if PAS decides to align itself more closely with its fellow Muslim Malays in UMNO. “As we go down the road the friction is likely to get worse,” said Khalid Abdul Samad, a PAS Member of Parliament.
As a largely Malay Muslim party, PAS typically competes for votes with UMNO, the biggest party in parliament. Participation in the opposition coalition sharpened voters’ perceptions of the differences between the two parties, but long-standing divisions within PAS re-emerged after 2013 between those who favored co-operation with the DAP and Keadilan, and those who sought a more ethnocentric alignment with UMNO.
“Hadi [the PAS leader] is … a strong believer in UMNO-PAS cooperation to keep the non-Malays out of power,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania.
In the end, the conservatives in PAS won, and the party’s “progressives,“ who favored the alliance with the DAP and Keadilan, were removed from the party’s central committee in early June.
Among those voted off was Khalid, who told the NAR that the change in party leadership and the June 6 vote to cut ties with the DAP meant that “there is no longer a Pakatan Rakyat.”
The opposition coalition’s demise will be welcome news for Najib, who is under growing pressure over a controversial government development company known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister and a former leader of UMNO, has been calling for some time for Najib to resign.
“Najib has destroyed UMNO and BN,” Mahathir wrote in his blog last week. Mahathir’s claims have prompted Najib to ask voters not to be swayed by the still-influential former prime minister’s arguments. 1MDB has also taken issue with some of Mahathir’s allegations.
Lim told the NAR that that the DAP had been angered by support expressed for Najib by Hadi, the PAS leader, even though 1MDB is being investigated by Malaysia’s Auditor-General and the public accounts committee of parliament. “Despite the 1MDB scandal he expresses support for Najib. Even within UMNO there are those who are concerned about it [1MDB],” Lim said.