Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak has survived a massive embezzlement scandal, opposition street protests and challenges from within his ruling United Malays National Organization party. Photo: Reuters / Olivia Harris
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak has survived a massive embezzlement scandal, opposition street protests and challenges from within his ruling United Malays National Organization party. Photo: Reuters / Olivia Harris

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government must legally hold new elections by August 2018, a date many analysts earlier speculated the long-ruling premier would move up via a snap poll for strategic purposes. But that assessment has shifted yet again in light of the opposition coalition’s mounting internal ructions.

Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party’s information chief Tan Sri Annuar Musa told media last week “patience” is needed before calling the next poll because the opposition is still in disarray, a situation independent analysts suspect will worsen before it gets better in the months ahead.

The government’s near incessant attacks on the main opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition are par for the course in Malaysia’s mud-slinging politics. But the government’s anti-Harapan criticisms, many independent observers say, are not far off the mark.

Najib recently derided Harapan for engaging in so-called “Machiavellian” politics, a cynical outlook where the enemy of my enemy is my friend. That assessment stems from Harapan’s move in March to welcome the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM), a party recently formed by two former and now disenfranchised UMNO grandees, into its fold.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak looks on during Independence Day celebrations in Kuala Lumpur on August 31, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Mahathir Mohamad, who served as prime minister from 1981 until 2003, is PPBM’s chairman, while the party’s president is Muhyiddin Yassin, who was sacked by Najib as deputy prime minister in 2015 after mounting an internal challenge to the scandal-plagued premier’s rule.

Much of Harapan’s media attention, not unjustly, has focused on its old-timer leadership. Anwar Ibrahim, the jailed de facto leader of the opposition, said in June he would not stand as its prime ministerial candidate, a move that surprised many and which might not be entirely truthful.

Anwar helped create the so-called reformasi movement after he was sacked as deputy premier and finance minister by then premier Mahathir in 1998, at the height of the Asian financial crisis.

He was later imprisoned on sodomy, a crime in Muslim majority Malaysia, and corruption charges, widely-believed to have been orchestrated by Mahathir. He was imprisoned again in 2015 on another sodomy charge that independent observers view as politically motivated.

The historical irony hasn’t been lost on Harapan’s own members.

“[Mahathir] has been the enemy of reformasi and suddenly you want to make him the leader of the reform movement. It’s hard to accept,” Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Harapan coalition’s president, who also serves as the People’s Justice Party (PKR) leader, reportedly said. She is also Anwar’s wife.

Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in a file combination photo. Photo: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad

Yet after months of negotiations, Mahathir, not Wan Azizah, was named the coalition’s chairman in July. That appointment, however, hasn’t dampened debate about who would become premier if the opposition wins at the ballot box.

The 92-year-old Mahathir told local media last month that he does not envision ruling, but rather that his only concern is to defeat Najib, his one-time protégé, at the polls.

Malaysia’s opposition coalitions are frequently made up of strange political bedfellows. Pakatan Rakyat, the Anwar-led coalition that lasted from 2008 until 2015, was comprised of multiracial and pro-liberal parties that coexisted alongside an extreme Islamist party.

If a broad church increases the opposition’s chances of winning disparate constituencies at the ballot box, it also raises the stakes for a potential collapse through internal squabbling and backbiting.

Indeed, it was the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party’s (PAS) push for the implementation of hudud, jurisprudence that imposes harsh penalties under Islamic law, in the northern state of Kelantan that caused Rakyat to splinter and break apart.

Amid the dispute, Rakyat’s two multiracial parties, the PKR and Democratic Action Party (DAP), moved to form a new coalition, Pakatan Harapan. It was later joined by the National Trust Party (Amanah), a breakaway group from PAS, and then Mahathir’s PPBM, an UMNO splinter group.

Last year PAS formed its own coalition, Gagasan Sejahtera, which has since been joined by three smaller parties. Not only does that mean three coalitions are likely to contest the next general election when normally only two compete, but Harapan will lose some of PAS’ significant Islamic support base.

Supporters of the adoption of a strict Islamic penal code at Padang Merbok in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on February 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

At the 2013 general election, PAS won almost 15% of the vote, nearly the same share as DAP, which took more seats (38-21) due to Malaysia’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Harapan was keen to include PPBM, despite their historic and ideological differences, since it will bid to lure Malay-Muslim voters away from PAS.

In July, Mahathir defended his decision to field PPBM a ethnic Malay-centric party because, he said, Malaysians vote overwhelmingly on communal identity. Around 68% of the country’s population is ethnic Malay and other indigenous groups known as bumiputera, 23% Chinese and 7% ethnic Indian, according to the government’s demographics statistics division.

While the DAP’s leader later disputed Mahathir’s stance, claiming it represented a divisive Malay versus Chinese outlook, several commentators believe the former leader’s position on the issue accurately reflects what usually happens at Malaysia’s general elections. Mahathir this week accused PAS intentionally splitting Malay votes so Najib’s Barisan National coalition wins the next poll.

If Harapan had opted for ethnic Chinese, non-Muslim DAP leader Lim Kit Siang as its prime ministerial candidate, then many Malay Muslims may be put off from voting for the coalition, Norshahril Saat of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ Yusof Ishak Institute wrote in a recent article.

“Many heartland Malays are…likely to support Mahathir’s candidacy,” he predicted.

Since Rakyat’s collapse in 2015, there has been speculation that UMNO and PAS might form a potent pro-Malay partnership at the next general election. While a formal alliance is for now off the table, an ad-hoc understanding is still possible.

One manifestation of this could be that UMNO decides not to run candidates in constituencies where PAS polls well, thereby not splitting the Muslim vote and diminishing the odds of a Harapan candidate winning. The PAS could return the favor in constituencies UMNO expects a tight race with Harapan.

Najib supporters at an election campaign rally at his constituency in Pekan east of Kuala Lumpur on May 4, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad 

After nearly six decades in power, UMNO has skewed the electoral system so much in its favor that some analysts believe an opposition coalition would need to win more than 60% of the popular vote to gain a majority in parliament. At the 2013 election, Rakyat won 50.8% of the popular vote but only took 40% of parliament’s seats.

That means Harapan needs to have an exceptional campaign strategy to topple Najib’s UMNO-backed coalition. Given the coalition’s current infighting, it has so far failed to offer voters a clear sense of exactly how a Harapan coalition government would differ from the incumbent UMNO-led administration.

Harapan’s chances have also narrowed amid signs UMNO is regaining its footing. Corruption allegations have hounded Najib’s eight-year tenure, seen most recently in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state fund money-laundering scandal that is still under investigation in several countries including the US. Najib was absolved of any wrongdoing by a local court and his appointed Attorney General.

At the height of the bombshell scandal, in 2015, Najib’s approval ratings tanked. The Merdeka Centre, a pollster, found that almost four out of five Malaysians were unhappy with his leadership, including his government’s handling of a sagging economy. But his approval ratings are now rising again, however slowly, as the unresolved scandal starts to fade from domestic view.

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