Fundamentalists Sink Malaysia Opposition Pact

One of the keys that is playing a role in tipping over Malaysia’s political system into the bin and spawning the possible establishment of a new unity party, is the apparent emasculation of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition that built the biggest opposition successes since Malaysia became an independent country.

The coalition was declared dead on Tuesday, May 16, after the Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), its conservative Islamic wing refused to give up aspirations for fundamentalist rule in Kelantan, the only state it controls. Democratic Action Party Parliamentary Leader Lim Kit Siang declared the coalition was awaiting “funeral rites.”

Lim blamed Abdul Hadi Awang, the PAS leader, for the death of the coalition, saying Hadi’s tactics had resulted in the destruction of the Common Policy Framework, put together by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim when he formed the coalition in 2008.

Coalition always a fragile dream

But from its birth seven years ago, the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, made up of the DAP, PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which Anwar put together out of moderate ethnic Malays, disaffected UMNO members and other bits and pieces, was never really viable. However, given rising disillusion with the ruling corruption-ridden and race-haunted Barisan Nasional, the opposition stunned the Barisan in 2008, winning 82 of the 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament and breaking the national coalition’s two-thirds hold on Parliament for the first time.

Then, in 2013, the party did even better, winning a 50.87 percent majority of the popular vote to 47.38% for the Barisan but gaining only 89 seats to 133 because of gerrymandering and the first-past-the-post electoral system. The Barisan and particularly Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak at that point, realizing it had to be neutralized, openly began courting PAS in an effort to break it up.

Now PAS, having risen to the Mayfly, appears to be attempting to align itself with UMNO in the belief that between the two of them they can take enough of the 60.1 percent of ethnic Malay votes to continue to dominate the politics of the country against the 22 percent of Chinese, 8 percent of Indians and the remainder which are mainly Christian tribes in Sabah and Sarawak.

To the frustration of the DAP and Parti Keadilan, Abdul Hadi Awang, PAS party leader, has moved inexorably toward supporting Najib despite the huge unfolding scandal over the state-funded investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd.

Deal with the Devil?

A pact with UMNO, however, could be a Faustian bargain and depends on keeping moderate ethnic Malays toeing the party line. Like most of the ethnic minorities, many want nothing to do with the law, called hudud, which calls for stoning adulterers and amputating the limbs of thieves.

“Malay votes are going to be split four ways or more, meaning state governments will be unstable along with the federal government,” said an ethnic Malay lawyer. He darkly predicted severe political turmoil. Another Malaysian source pointed out that the other two parties – DAP and Parti Keadilan – remain together in the coalition and could move forward more effectively without the impediment of the Islamic fundamentalists to recruit other moderate Malay votes that might be scared out of UMNO and PAS.

And, with 71 percent of the population now living in urban areas, the percentage of rural Malays living in the kampungs, or villages, is shrinking. Presumably so along with it is any appetite for fundamentalist law. Urban Malays are much more moderate than their rural counterparts, favoring fashionable dress and, when nobody is looking, drinking beer. For instance, in a poll after severe flooding last year, nationwide 81 percent of ethnic Malays believed the Kelantan government should concentrate on the implementation of hudud, or harsh fundamentalist Islamic law instead of doing something about the flooding. In Kelantan itself, 81 percent also voted against hudud.

There is a huge amount of political uncertainty in the individual states where Pakatan Rakyat coalitions control the statehouses, and whether those coalitions are to be dissolved as well. If so, that would require new elections, generating more uncertainty. With UMNO paralyzed by the infighting between the wing of the party controlled by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and that controlled by Najib, the political situation in the country appears to be deteriorating daily. It is a question of time before the political impasse starts to affect international investment.

Secretary General Lim Guan Eng of the DAP told reporters the party would seek a coalition with as-yet unnamed Islamic parties, although it’s questionable if there are any viable ones. That would make a move by a new coalition centering around Najib's brother Nazir [see adjoining story] a more viable possible fit.

Coalition Begins to Disintegrate

As Anwar has faded from the scene, the coalition has been slowly disintegrating. Last year, after Anwar was unable to engineer the chief ministership of the rich and populous state of Selangor for himself after being blocked by a conviction in court, he attempted to put his wife into the seat, only to have PAS refuse its support. Eventually, Wan Azizah was pushed aside for Azmin.

However, Anwar, dogged by continuing charges of sodomy that were considered trumped up by human rights organization, was not able to turn his attention to healing the rifts between a Chinese party, a fundamentalist rural Islamic one, and his own PKR. He was ultimately jailed in January on the charges and remains in prison, his political career probably over.

According to critics, the destruction of the opposition coalition is very much the brainchild of Najib, who is said to have worked behind the scenes to foster a “unity” arrangement with PAS and its leader, Abdul Hadi Awang. Ruling coalition opposition – UMNO opposition -- the PAS decision to seek to implement hudud, or seventh-century Islamic law in the east coast state of Kelantan, was said to have been only token.