Could Malaysia Get a National Unity Government?

With the perceived weakening of Najib Tun Razak's position of tenure as Malaysian Prime Minister, there is deep speculation within the country about moves afoot to form a national unity government.

Since the Barisan National's re-election on May 5, there has been a distinct shift in stance towards 'Ketuanan Melayu' or Malay privilege, at the cost of 1Malaysia inclusive philosophy. There is now little talk about Najib's Economic Transformation Program, and after a relaxed stance towards rallies by the opposition, authorities are now taking stern action towards Anwar's Black 505 movement with mass arrests of demonstrators over the weekend. Even Najib's calls to make Umno more inclusive have aggravated many within his party.

According to political pundits and more specifically former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is now viewed as kingmaker inside Umno, Najib is still prime minister only because there is currently no other creditable and popular figure who could take the mantle of leadership away from him.

If we go back to pre-May 5 feeling in the community, there was great anticipation that an era of change was about to sweep the country. There was excitement on the streets with an almost carnival atmosphere. But the result on election night disappointed so many people, where denial and claims of massive cheating showed that many refused to accept the result.

This has left the country just as divided as it was before the election. Nothing was settled and politicking rather than governance is dominating the national narrative. Anwar Ibrahim is pushing the government into a corner with his national Black 505 tour, disputing the election result which seems to be directly challenging Najib to take action against him.

Today's political situation is of concern to many of Malaysia's top echelon of businesspeople, politicians, civil servants, and even members of the royal families. There is a strong feeling among the country's elite that Malaysia needs good governance rather than politicking. Many are very sympathetic to the concept of a national unity government as a solution to this impasse, as it appears any election would not bring the harmonious result the nation needs. The idea of a national unity government is not without any precedent, as PAS was once a member of the Barisan Nasional back in the early 1970s.

Some feel that although the Barisan won through the first-past-the-post electoral system, the Pakatan Rakyat's higher popular vote justifies the opposition having some say in government. For these people, a unity government would restore moderate policies and narrative, and keep 'ultra-ism' in check. Even within Umno itself, some see the possibility of a national unity government as a means to maintain the party's long-term survival, as the party to many Malays is an icon of political history and development. Umno's participation in a national unity government would act as pressure for internal reform, something many members want.

From Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, there are many, particularly those ex-Umno members that see the party's participation in a national unity government would give it the legitimacy it needs to survive in the long term past the persona of Anwar Ibrahim. They want PKR to stand on its own two feet without the 'Anwar personality cult'.

PAS has been reluctantly romanced by Umno many times over the years, but the party may favorably consider the concept of a national unity government under certain conditions. Many just feel that it's time to stop talking about race and religion, and address the real needs of the country.

If one looked through the blogs and even the mainstream media over the weekend, many different scenarios and numbers have been canvassed. Two speculative scenarios exist. One involves Premier Najib himself and the other with a move by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah or Ku Li as he is known.

The first option would involve Najib making a move to bring in parties from the Pakatan Rakyat into the government, as has been periodically mooted over the last few years. Such a move would probably ensure Umno a much brighter future electorally. This would stall the forces of Malay nationalists Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Mahathir, and if completed smoothly, would shore up Najib's position as President of Umno in the coming October elections.

Such a move would also allow Najib to change the narrative from the 'ultraist' direction it is going, to a more moderate and inclusive one. Such an achievement could elevate Najib's status, which might create a positive legacy for him despite the allegations of deep corruption that have swirled around him and his wife, Rosmah Mansor.

However this move would also seal the fate of the Malaysian Chinese Association and Gerakan, the two ethnic Chinese parties in the Barisan which were reduced to a shambles in the May election, and maybe even the Malaysian Indian Congress, which won four Parliamentary seats, as they are tossed aside for the DAP, PAS, and PKR.

Many outstanding issues must be solved before such a government could happen. It would include policies and corruption, where it is rumored the new minister in the PM's office Paul Low is shocked by the extent of waste and corruption within government. Determining a way for all parties to work through these issues could be big stumbling blocks to any potential agreement.

The biggest problem would be that any initiative by Najib may lack the persuasion and statesmanship needed to pull of such a big coup. His track record has been a very passive one during his tenure as prime minister, especially since the May 5 election. The formation of a national unity government would take a massive amount of negotiation and convincing to all parties, including the Umno rank and file. To date Najib hasn't shown that he has got what it takes.

The Tengku Razaleigh option has been gathering much speculation over the last few days, and there is a difference in the stories circulating as to whether he may make a bid for the Umno party presidency, or seek to move a no confidence motion against the Prime Minister during the first day of Parliament sitting. His discussions with members of parliament from both sides fuel speculation about the latter.

Ku Li is reported to be meeting political leaders in Sabah and Sarawak who are disillusioned with Najib for not appointing them to the Federal cabinet. Moreover they feel let down with the solid performance that they achieved in support of the Barisan with little reward. Finally they have concerns about how a weakened Barisan will be able to govern effectively. Although there is much wishful thinking about this scenario, such a dramatic seizure of power doesn't seem to be Ku Li's modus operandi. A Kuala Lumpur-based businessman with extensive connections to the party says the chances that Ku Li could oust Najib are extremely slim.

So what are the realistic chances that a national unity government could occur sometime in the near future?

A meeting between Najib and Anwar Ibrahim, although denied by Anwar, was reported to have taken place at the Istana Presiden Indonesia in Jakarta last Saturday. It can only be speculated upon what was discussed, but with pressure put on Najib by Mahathir, Najib's options are limited. Najib's bid to stop the two top posts within Umno being contested by election was met with great animosity by pro-Mahathir bloggers.

Likewise the authorities clamping down on the 505 rallies might put some pressure on Anwar to consider a national unity government, if that was indeed on the agenda of their discussions, if at all they occurred.

Any attempt to seize the initiative by Najib would no doubt meet with the full wrath of Mahathir, who would go into overdrive to replace him as PM. This fact alone casts doubt about any moves by Najib to discuss the possibilities of forming any type of national unity government. It would be a brave man who crossed the Tun, yet Najib is also desperate for self- survival.

The logistics of organizing any form of national unity government which could survive the whole parliamentary term would be horrendous. Allocating ministries among DAP, PAS, and PKR, developing policies, and creating a working cabinet among previous adversaries is a tall order. However if this could be achieved a certain amount of political stability would be achieved and the centre of political gravity would return to the peninsula, something many want.

A national unity government might give the people of Malaysia the feeling that some of their aspirations have been met.

Ku Li first postulated a national unity government back after the 2008 election. In the post GE-13 scenario he would need Pakatan Rakyat's 89 members, plus 35 other supporters to enable him to win a vote of no confidence on the floor of the Dewan Rakyat, the lower house. Ku Li is probably seen as the only figure left in the parliament who could not only unite Umno, but a government, and even the country as a whole.

The political leaders in Sabah are known for their fickleness, which was blamed for Anwar's botched attempt to win their defection on Sept. 16, 2008. Within Umno, one of the biggest unknowns is the new voting system the direct election of the party resident this year. Nobody really knows what the majority of Umno members really want. However there are many people inside of Umno who might welcome Ku Li as a chance to break away from the current mold and allow the party to progress.

Things start to get much more complex from the Pakatan Rakyat side. The spiritual leader of PAS Nik Aziz has been against negotiations with Umno, but now after standing down as the Chief Minister of Kelantan, his continued influence within the party is unknown. There are those within PAS who see negotiations as a good thing for Malay and Muslim unity.

The ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party, now the second-biggest party in the country, has gone so far without compromise and stalwarts within the party would likely oppose any such moves. But then many also said that the DAP would not last long within PR. The DAP has surprisingly lasted, even with the unfriendly rhetoric that arises from time to time from its coalition partners.

Ironically, it may be two archrivals Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir who might be the big spoilers of any such moves towards any form of national unity government. Many close to Anwar Ibrahim often comment about his strong personal drive and determination to become PM, and a national unity government would probably exclude him of that chance. Consequently he may not allow PKR to become involved in any discussion or participate in any government.

However those within PKR who believe that the party is more than a vehicle for Anwar to achieve his own political ambitions may be more conducive to the possibility of negotiations, especially given the fact that many PKR members are in actual fact ex-Umno members. The serious mooting of a national unity government could develop a crisis within PKR between those who are opposed and those who want to explore the possibility.

From Mahathir's perspective, he is rebuilding influence within the party and any national unity government would threaten this. Any national unity government would take Malaysian politics to a new era where he may become excluded.

Malaysia's political future must have Umno within its calculations. Umno has strong enough support by those who belief in its heritage, the party cannot be ignored. For those who see politics as the art of the pragmatic and possible, power sharing may be the avenue to change that so many Malaysians desire.

However, besides the spoilers, self interest is likely to get in the way of any real breakthrough with people fearful of losing positions and influence. Developing a new model of government without the embedded corruption may be too difficult a task, as those involved will need to cover up their deeds.

It is difficult to see how this issue could ever be resolved without giving immunity of prosecution, something people may not be willing to agree on.

Although a national unity government has so much to give Malaysia, and so many people view this as a real hope for the future, there are too many forces against this reality. Had a hung parliament resulted from the may 5th election, a national unity government led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah might have been a real possibility, but the reality today may be that any potential national unity government is only a fairytale, albeit one shared by many.

(Murray Hunter is an Australian academic teaching at a Malaysian university and a consultant to several Southeast Asian governments.)