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A blow to Malaysia's politics

Gabriel DomínguezJune 18, 2015

Once seen as an alternative to the ruling coalition, Malaysia's opposition alliance has fallen apart. DW examines the reasons and implications of a development hastened by the jailing of charismatic leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Malaysia Parlament
Image: cc-by-sa-3.0/CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Some argued it had the potential to unseat the governing National Front coalition which has dominated Malaysian politics for more than five decades. But Malaysia's three-party opposition alliance is now split over political differences.

A push by the opposition party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) to enforce the Islamic Shariah penal code - which includes penalties such as the severing of limbs for theft - in the northern rural state of Kelantan sparked protests from its ally, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which accused the PAS' new conservative leadership of seeking to work with the government to achieve its goal.

'Hudud' dispute

Plans to implement Islamic penalties - known as hudud - are based on a law that was first enacted in the 1990s but could not be imposed due to limitations set to Islamic courts by the Federal Constitution.

PAS now seeks to amend the Federal Constitution to this end and the powerful United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which dominates the ruling coalition, has recently supported this move in a bid to recover support amid a diminishing mandate.

The Islamic party reacted to the DAP's criticism by voting to sever ties with the secular ally which, in turn, declared the death of the opposition pact on Tuesday, June 16, despite last-minute efforts by Wan Azizah, leader of the opposition People's Justice Party or Parti Kaedilan Rakyat (PKR) and wife of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, to save the seven-year-old tripartite Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance).

Malaysia Anführer der Opposition Anwar Ibrahim
Anwar was imprisoned on charges of sodomy this February and sentenced to five years in prisonImage: Reuters/O. Harris

"In light of this, the political coalition that is Pakatan Rakyat no longer functions formally," she said in a statement. However, Wan Azizah added that in its bid to defeat the government, the PKR would continue efforts to build "coalition among political parties, non-governmental organizations, groups and influential individuals."

Leadership struggle

Jahabar Sadiq, chief editor of The Malaysian Insider news portal, explains, however, that there is a second key reason for the breakup: leadership. "PAS's conservative leaders have been trying to jostle to lead the opposition pact despite winning fewer seats in the last election. They were upset over a change in state leadership in Selangor and have been unsupportive of the top leaderships in PKR and to a lesser extent, DAP."

This, the journalist argues, has led to a breakdown in personal ties, and the conservatives' sweeping win in the recent PAS elections have hardened the gulf between the allies. "To put it simply, personal politics have broken up what is Malaysia's most successful opposition pact to date," noted Jahabar.

Analysts say the breakup ultimately benefits the beleaguered ruling coalition - in power since Malaysian independence in 1957 - which has been struggling to win votes amid criticism over its handling of the economy and a scandal over a debt-laden state investment fund that has dented the image of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The Anwar effect

During the 2013 elections, the National Front had its poorest performance since independence from Britain after receiving only 48 percent of the popular vote, compared to 52 percent for the Anwar-led opposition. The ruling bloc was able to remain in power only because it won the most seats.

But despite the opposition's impressive performance at the ballot box, disunity among its various constituents due to deep ideological disagreements continued, and Anwar had to play a unifying role within the alliance. Therefore Anwar's imprisonment on charges of sodomy this February - a case critics view as politically motivated - only hastened the collapse of the opposition coalition.

"The coalition had been held together by Anwar. He acted as a glue and was able to convince PAS that issues such as the enforcement of the Islamic Shariah penal code should not be touched,"Moritz Kleine-Brockhoff, Malaysia expert at the German Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation for Freedom, told DW.

Anwar's conviction banned the 67-year-old former deputy prime minister from politics five years after his release from prison, meaning that he is also disqualified from contesting the next election that must be held by 2018.

'A devastating blow'

So what are the implications of the opposition split? Although Malaysian politics is notoriously unpredictable, analyst Kleine-Brockhoff believes the recent development doesn't bode well for the opposition's main goal of unseating the ruling coalition.

"The opposition-coalition had made great gains in the elections in 2008 and in 2013. But given its break-up, the threat to the ruling coalition at the national level is gone for the time being. It's a devastating blow for those who seek to change the government in Malaysia," said the analyst.

Najib Razak
PM Razak's image has been dented by a scandal over a debt-laden state investment fundImage: Gatty Images

Journalist Jahabar argues that in order to re-build a strong opposition coalition there needs to be an acceptance that the main issues in Malaysia at the moment are socio-economic, rather than related to political philosophy and that the opposition shouldn't be squabbling over policies that are not a priority for the population.

Setting priorities

The Southeast Asian country's currency is currently weakening and there is a lack of business confidence and diminishing industrial and commodities output. Moreover, analysts say the number of urban poor in Malaysia is increasing due to migration from rural areas, while a growing number of foreign laborers remains poorly paid and often snubbed by locals.

"The main challenge to form a political opposition to the National Front is to agree on a common leadership and platform based on mutual trust, and respect that most Malaysians are not asking for religious regulation or punishments but a fair and equitable governance based on the rule of law," said Jahabar.