Malaysia’s Opposition Coalition: Maybe Not so Grand

In the cold light of Malaysia’s day, a Citizen’s Declaration coalition attempt announced on March 4 to bring down Prime Minister Najib Razak may face insurmountable problems beyond just adding to the publicity over allegations of massive corruption.

The coalition has gathered the widest array of civic and political leaders so far in the attempt to bring down the scandal-plagued prime minister. But the coalition, led by the 90-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, appears beset by deep problems even before it gets underway, not the least of which is the fact that with all of its disparate elements put together, it is nowhere near possessing the numbers needed to force a vote of confidence that would bring down Najib.

Everybody in the potential coalition is already an opponent, so there is no net gain in opposition numbers unless a significant number of dissidents defect from Najib’s United Malays National Organization, the leading component of the Barisan Rakyat ethnic coalition that leads the country, taking their Malay support bases with them, which doesn’t seem in the cards. So far, nobody seems to have followed former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Mahathir’s son Mukhriz into Mahathir’s arms. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, endlessly named as a strong possible opposition leader, has chosen to deny he is joining.

“We have seen this before, too many times,” said a pessimistic Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer and opposition backer. “Let’s let it go for awhile to see if anything happens. Everybody is waiting for the (US government’s Federal Bureau of Investigation) to finish its investigation.”

In one sense, perhaps the happiest benefactors from the split are the top UMNO cadres that Mahathir and his small band of dissidents left behind. Among those are Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the deputy prime minister; Nazri Abdul Aziz, Kairy Jamaluddin, the youth and sports minister, and others who see the ouster of former party deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin as a chance to move up.

According to one school, if Najib eventually is forced out by the growing weight of public opinion, Zahid’s way to the premiership would no longer be blocked, although many in UMNO regard him as an unprincipled politician and loose cannon. However, despite growing concern about the country’s almost-daily darkening international image, the party leaders aren’t ready to give up on Najib just yet despite the danger that the allegations of corruption raise the possibility that UMNO will be destroyed outright in the next election.

Despite an endorsement of the coalition by the imprisoned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, it is clear from the outset that Mahathir, who once engineered a rigged trial to jail Anwar, is out to freeze Anwar’s faction out of the budding coalition – which it now heads. The former premier is instead seeking to build the coalition around Azmin Ali, the ambitious chief minister of the state of Selangor, who as much as anything is a challenger for power within Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the party headed by Anwar.

“Azmin has the potential to be PM,” said a member of the Mahathir faction. “He could appeal to all Malays across the board. Non-Malays don’t know much about him, but he isn’t looked on as a radical.”

It is notable that Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who founded the party in 2003, was absent from the press conference announcing the coalition, as was Lim Guan Eng, the secretary general of the Democratic Action Party and chief minister of the state of Penang.

How many of the members of the coalition actually trust Mahathir is questionable. Many see him as seeking to put together a political machine only to wrest power from UMNO instead of investing in a realistic movement to reform the country’s deeply flawed political system, which depends on money politics and rent-seeking – a system perfected by Mahathir during his 22 years in power.

Mahathir is attempting to put together a hybrid of the Azmin faction of Pakatan Amanah, the new name for Pakatan Rakyat, plus whatever UMNO dissidents he can lure away from Najib’s party, plus Harapan Baru, the moderate defectors who fled the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia last year when the party sought to impose seventh-century hudud, or shariah punishments in Kelantan, the only state PAS controls.

With that shaky coalition, the rebranded opposition would seek to control Selangor, Malaysia’s largest and most prosperous state, which is controlled by the opposition in any case. Johor, the second-biggest state, could be a possibility because it is Muhyiddin’s home state. Muhyiddin’s ally is the Sultan of Johor.

But that raises questions over whom among the country’s contending factions, many of which distrust all the others, and all of which distrust Mahathir, would go along. The DAP, whose titular head, Lim Kit Siang, has endorsed the coalition, was also jailed by Mahathir in 1987 in the infamous Operation Lalang crackdown on dissidents and political enemies. It is also questionable if the DAP would settle just for Penang, the state the DAP now controls. The DAP is also not comfortable with Azmin.

If Anwar and his faction don’t swallow their pride and go along, the refusal of the country’s most prominent and most martyred dissident would be a devastating blow.

Najib continues to command the bulk of the UMNO cadres, who are comfortable with the monthly payments and rent-seeking contracts Najib and the government spills to them. It is hard to see that change.

This is a coalition that demonstrates, as perhaps no other coalition anywhere has, the dangers of the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. They have almost nothing in common. But there is one thing, and that is the demonstration of the growing fatigue over the unprecedented scandals that have put Najib and Malaysia on the front pages of papers around the world. That poses the biggest danger for UMNO in the next general election. But also raises the question if it will be possible to put together a credible opposition that can bring the Barisan down.

“After Najib has done smashing Malaysia into bits, the opposition may inherit a broken nation which they are not up to the task to repair,” said a lawyer aligned with Mahathir.