Malaysia's Opposition Coalition Must Radically Change to Survive

Bitter lessons from Melaka state elections

By: Murray Hunter

Most of Malaysia’s political analysts foresaw that the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, which stumbled from power in February 2020 after a disastrous performance , had electoral appeal issues — but not the magnitude of the disaster that befell them in the weekend state elections in the historic town of Melaka.

The corollary is that Melaka has clearly shown that the scandal-steeped United Malays National Organization is back, with convicted felon Najib Razak, the former prime minister and author of the biggest scandal in Malaysian history, being hailed as a hero with 4.5 million followers on Facebook. That is despite facing 12 years in prison and additional legal action against both him and his wife. By one reckoning, he may now be the most powerful political figure in the country, his political resuscitation nearly complete. There is considerable conjecture that a compromised court system could reverse his conviction on appeal.

UMNO, with formidable grassroots election machinery, has shown they are now the dominant Malay party, taking on the Perikatan Nasional challenge with ease. With the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, the Barisan Nasional returns as a multiracial umbrella once again.

Pakatan Harapan not only failed to take the reins of government but was nearly decimated. This should be extremely alarming for the coalition’s top leadership. If it can’t win Melaka, it will have no chance of winning Putrajaya. If the coalition can’t change, then Pakatan as we know it will not survive the coming general election.

Melaka was a good bellwether for the rest of the peninsula and rationally it should have held considerable appeal for the Pakatan voters. It is semi-urban, with a majority of Malay voters in 20 of 28 of the state seats. The state is also a good indicator of overall party support is because local issues played a minimum role in the election, with the exception of candidate selection

The final results gave the Barisan Nasional 21 seats, 17 of them to the United Malays National Organization, which picked up four new seats, MCA picking up two new seats, and the MIC picking up one. Parti Pribumi Bersatu, under the Perikatan Nasional coalition, maintained two seats, with the rural Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia not winning a single seat.

The opposition Democratic Action Party held onto four seats, losing four, with Amanah losing one of the two seats it won in 2018. Parti Keadilan Rakyat, headed by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, lost the three seats it won in 2018. This gives the Barisan Nasional a two-thirds majority in the new assembly. In the last general election, Pakatan won the state with 15 seats to the Barisan Nasional’s 13 seats.

Reality must sink in for Pakatan

For Pakatan Harapan, the results reflect their dismal image with the voting electorate. Melaka has quantified voter disappointment, apathy, and even anger that all knew about, but couldn’t numerically sum up until the Saturday night election results.

An analysis of the comments made on online news sites and social media indicates a number of issues that have created negative perceptions of Pakatan, and were translated into a poor electoral performance. These were not comments made by cyber troopers to discredit Pakatan, voting patterns clearing reflected the feelings of the electorate out there, waiting for a chance to express them.

Discontent long-running

Disenchantment has been widespread with Pakatan since its unexpected general election win in 2018. The coalition, dogged by infighting, failed to implement much of its reform agenda. A string of by-elections sent a message the electorate was disappointed. Cronyism and corruption issues raised their head within the administration before it was turfed out after the leader Mahathir Mohamad suddenly resigned amid an attempt to set up a Malay-first coalition that brought Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition to power.

The anger over UMNO coming back to power through the back door didn’t equate to electoral support for Pakatan.

The DAP has received considerable blame out of a perception of being silent over a number of unpopular decisions with its supporters when it was in government. DAP leader Lim Guan Eng’s reputation is tainted with corruption issues yet to be resolved, with many party insiders believing he should have long ago stepped down. The grassroots faction of the party has been largely replaced with an elitist faction, conjuring up perceptions of Chinese chauvinism with many voters.

Anwar has become a divisive figure, leading to many party members questioning whether he should remain as a coalition leader. He failed to nominate a shadow cabinet to effectively counter UMNO decisions and signed an MOU to support the Ismail Sabri government in parliament, leaving the impression of lust for power rather than principle.

Taking up party defectors cost Pakatan dearly. Former UMNO chief minister Idris Haron, running for PKR lost by more than 3,000 votes. Amanah’s selection of defector Nor Azman Hassan, formally an UMNO member lost to the BN candidate Tuminah Mohd Hasim by more than 1,100.

In addition to taking on the political ‘frogs,’ named for their predilection to jump from one party to another, Anwar’s decision to replace Ginie Lim, who had strong local support in Machap with another candidate Law Bing Haw, allowed the MCA to win the seat with a nearly 1,000 vote majority.

Anwar’s lukewarm opposition to a racially unfair 2022 budget led to a lot of online criticism. Others claim that Anwar lacks any clear vision for Malaysia and they want to see young candidates with fresh ideas. They are tired of the intra-party politics and Anwar falling out with key party allies, the latest being the popular Rafizi Ramli, who was a key electoral strategist.

The calls for Anwar to resign have become much stronger now. Staying on as a leader will be an electoral liability for PKR.

Malaysia is in the midst of a recession, with growing unemployment, rising poverty, rampant corruption, and a government steeped in corruption making unpopular decisions over issues sensitive to traditional Pakatan voters, which should have made winning easy. However, the Barisan Nasional was able to project itself as a multiracial coalition, fighting for the same space as the multiracial Pakatan. In the end, Perikatan Nasional votes also eroded Pakatan support, rather than Barisan Nasional’s, leading to both groups suffering badly in the polls.

Pakatan supporters have lost trust, seeing Syed Saddiq’s new political movement, the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance formed in September 2020 by Syed Saddiq, previously a Pakatan Harapan minister, as a multiracial, youth-centered party as a new hope. Social media and WhatsApp groups are now becoming excited over MUDA, with Pakatan seen as losers.

The low turnout at 66 percent indicates voter apathy for all sides of politics. This is much more dangerous for Pakatan, as they have to defeat the incumbent government to take power. Pakatan must take close and careful notice and change, if they are to have even the slightest chance of winning GE15.

What are the options for Pakatan?

The first is to do nothing, the most likely scenario. If this occurs, there will be growing dissatisfaction among both respective coalition party members and voters. PKR could lose up to half of its current 47 seats in the federal parliament and the DAP may even lose a handful to successful MCA challenges. This would be a great setback for Pakatan, taking them a generation to recover.

The second option would be for Anwar Ibrahim to resign as the leader of the opposition. There are two problems to this scenario. Anwar has no intention of resigning. Even if Anwar was to step down for the good of the party, there is no visible heir apparent to take over. This shows a great weakness within PKR itself.

The third option is to form an alliance with UMNO. Such an alliance would bring Pakatan to the government once again, be it sharing power. For UMNO, this would mean the party could completely sever ties with PAS and become a more moderate party. There have been talks about this alliance for some time between Anwar and UMNO’s president Zahid Hamidi. Although a potentially winning coalition, party members from both sides would be staunchly against this, and most Pakatan supporters would see it as betrayal and rightfully so.

Finally, an ‘out of the box’ option would be to amalgamate all the member parties within Pakatan into a single party, something like the Democratic Justice Party (DJP). This would create a true multi-racial alternative to the race-based parties of the past. However, egos and differing agendas may make this almost impossible.

Pakatan now has a lot of serious thinking ahead of them.

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