Malaysian Polls Spell Crisis for Opposition Coalition

On May 7, a by-election is to be held in a semi-rural district in Penang to fill the seat vacated unwillingly by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, when he was jailed in February for the second time on charges of sodomy. The results could determine whether the opposition, which has had success beyond imagining in the past two national elections, can get its obstreperous Islamic unit back into line, or whether it will be forced to reconfigure itself along new and different lines.

The outcome of the election is hardly in doubt, with an opposition win expected, although the totals are expected to fall. But the dynamics of the electorate relate to whether Pakatan Rakyat, the shaky coalition of three disparate political parties that Anwar put together, is going to stay together. The district is composed of 60 percent Malay voters, 35 percent Chinese and the rest ethnic Indians, nearly an ethnic microcosm of the country.

A second race is going on in the district of Rompin, in the state of Pahang, to replace Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's ally and close friend, Jamaludin Jarjis, who was killed, ironically in a helicopter crash while flying back to Kuala Lumpur from Najib’s daughter’s wedding. That appears to be a straight contest testing Najib’s own plummeting popularity, which has fallen to 44 percent, the lowest in his career, over a series of issues, many of them fomented by his onetime patron, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has vowed to bring him down at all cost. In the current rate, Nazri Ahmad, a PAS candidate, is taking on Hasan Arifin, Najib ‘s UMNO surrogate.

In Permatang Pauh, the future makeup of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat could be at stake. Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the fundamentalist, rural-based Islamic party that has been increasingly rebellious for more than a year, has basically downed tools, leaving Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, made up of urban, moderate Malays, and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party to pull out the election for Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife.

The odds are for a diminished victory in a four-cornered race against Suhaiumi Sabudin of the United Malays National Organization and two splinter candidates, but a victory nonetheless that vaults her back into the leadership of the coalition, which she headed in the past decade when her husband was in jail, although she faces her own challenge within the party from Azmin Ali, a rising star whom many see as a break from the Anwar era. She has already contested the seat four times successfully during Anwar’s absence in jail.

The main issues, all of which militate for the opposition, are – in addition to the plummeting popularity of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak – the government’s struggle to implement a goods and services tax, which has drawn rallies all over the country and resulted in a spate of arrests for sedition, most of them opposition leaders; a sliding economy, with GDP falling to 4.5 percent in 2014; a rising cost of living driven by removal of petrol and diesel subsidies, a ringgit that is descending against other currencies as trade falls, and a perception of a high national crime rate.

Against that is PAS’s increasing intransigence in cooperating with a coalition that wants nothing to do with its hobbyhorse. That is hudud – the implementation of harsh 7th century Islamic law including stoning for adulterers and amputation of limbs for theft and other similar punishments. The push for hudud, which may or not be introduced in Kelantan, the state PAS that controls, remains to be seen.

It is an issue that is splitting PAS itself, with the party’s president, Abdul Hadi Awang, dropping increasingly bold hints that he and the conservative faction are more closely aligned with UMNO than with the moderates in the other two wings of the coalition. Amid growing acrimony, moderates within PAS have been beaten and intimidated by goons that critics say were employed by the ulama, or religious leaders.

Hadi may have overplayed his hand. According to a Merdeka Center poll held in January, voters don’t care about the issue of hudud. The poll, of 1,008 voters across the country, found that only 7 percent of them approved the enactment of hudud, and said they wanted the PAS government in Kelantan to pay more attention to relief of victims from devastating floods that struck last fall. Ethnically it wasn’t much better. Only 11 percent of ethnic Malay Muslims made hudud a priority over flood relief. It may be that the results could change if the question weren’t put in comparison with flood relief. Nonetheless, the poll is a vastly different result than Hadi would have wanted.

PAS’s rebellion has been growing since last March, when Anwar engineered the resignation of a friendly assemblyman so the opposition leader could run in a by-election that would springboard him into the chief ministership of Selangor State, the country’s richest and most populous, and give him a platform to harry Najib. His plan was scotched when the government won a reversal of a not guilty verdict in the sodomy trial that had dogged him for half a decade, blocking him from running for the job.

When he sought to put Wan Azizah in as a surrogate, PAS unexpectedly blocked the move, with the result that eventually Azmin Ali, Anwar’s rising party rival, was given the job. From that point forward, PAS has refused nearly all cooperation with the Pakatan coalition. When PAS spiritual leader Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat unexpectedly died in February, tensions grew. The 84-year-old leader was considered a moderating voice and the person in PAS keeping the three-party coalition together. With Nik Aziz gone, there seems little to moor PAS to Pakatan Rakyat.

“It is difficult to see what they can do, it is difficult to see how Parti Keadilan is going to keep them in line,” said a senior political analyst in Kuala Lumpur. “I don’t see how they can continue to stay together. PAS has decided to go conservative, they will push hudud, I can see some sort of coalition eventually between UMNO and the remnants of PAS.”