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Malaysia’s Opposition: The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight
Malaysia’s opposition parties, disorganized, squabbling among themselves and fighting over power, have driven reformers to despair, with some who decline to be named saying they simply no longer want to bother working with them.
One top lawyer flatly called them a “bunch of idiots” and vowed to cease any relationship with them.
“They just can't help themselves,” said a businessman who asked to remain nameless. “They are all using each other to get where they want. Their egos are so big, they keep screwing each other up. The Sarawak episode [in which the opposition was drubbed in a state election] has made even the most optimistic guys pessimistic about the opposition’s chances in the next polls.”
The latest fiascos occurred last week. Lim Guan Eng, a Democratic Action Party leader and chief minister of the state of Penang, is enmeshed in questions over whether he bought his home from a supporter at an artificially low price. Also Rafizi Ramli, the secretary-general of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the party founded by now-imprisoned leader Anwar Ibrahim, apparently sent a WhatsApp message to a chat group alleging that members of the Selangor state government, which the opposition controls, had demanded sex and money during contract negotiations. Azmin Ali, the chief minister of the Selangor government, for several months has been at odds with Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife and the current party leader. Azmin is regarded by Wan Azizah’s forces as unduly ambitious and attempting to take over the party, which leads the coalition.
Whether the allegations of corruption are true or not, they are an indication of the fractured nature of not only PKR but the entire opposition, cobbled together by Anwar prior to the 2009 general election despite drastically differing aims. They included Anwar’s PKR, made up largely of urban Malays and refugees from the United Malays National Organization; the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party; and the rural-based, fundamentalist Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS.
With no common goals – indeed conflicting ones -- the three parties share only a wish for power. That has been a recipe for political disaster.
Anwar, a gifted politician, managed to keep the three together until he was imprisoned last year for the second time on trumped charges of sexual misconduct with a male aide. The coalition’s high water mark was the 2013 general election, when it won 50.87 percent of the vote to 47.38 for the government coalition. However, gerrymandering preserved the government’s majority in parliament. It has been downhill ever since.
Malaysia is currently embroiled in one of the world’s biggest scandals, with the possibility that US$11.4 billion has gone missing from the government-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd fund –whose economic advisory chairman is the Prime Minister, Najib Razak and who by statute had final say on investment decisions.
On top of that, the United Malays National Organization, which leads the government, for more than a decade has been little more than a vehicle to loot the state coffers for its leaders, many of whom have been bribed to keep Najib at the head of the party. His family appear to be the target of a major investigation for money-laundering by the US Justice Department. At least five foreign governments are investigating money laundering charges surrounding 1MDB, Timothy Leissner, the former Southeast Asia chief for Goldman Sachs, has been named in newspapers as being investigated for complicity.
Thus if there were ever a time for the country’s long-suffering opposition to scent a chance to overthrow the old order, this ought to be it. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has played a role in bringing down three previous prime ministers, is leading the van in what he calls a Citizens’ Declaration to gather enough signatures to drive Najib from power. However, Anwar this week handwrote a letter from prison telling his followers not to trust Mahathir – the man who first orchestrated his imprisonment in 1998 on trumped-up charges of sexual misconduct.
Anwar himself stumbled in 2013 by driving out the previous Selangor chief minister, Khalid Ibrahim, and forcing a by-election to make himself chief minister and give him a platform to attack the government. Instead, he was charged with sexual misconduct and had to drop the plan. He then sought to use Wan Azizah as his surrogate, only to have that blocked by the Selangor sultan, possibly at Azmin’s behest. Azmin followed by keeping PAS in the government despite the split over shariah after the party split in two. On top of that, the DAP has grimly fought PAS at every turn over the shariah and other issues.
The mess was never more starkly outlined than in recent state elections in the Borneo state of Sarawak, where the opposition was drubbed by state parties aligned with the government in Putrajaya. The Democratic Action Party and Parti Keadilan Rakyat contested each other in six state constituencies, splitting the vote and handing easy victories to an already-powerful Barisan headed by Adenan Satem, the Sarawak chief minister. The opposition came away with just 10 of 82 seats.
Tellingly, the Pakatan Rakyat coalition cobbled together by Anwar is now known as Pakatan Harapan (Hope Alliance) after PAS more than a year ago sundered into two parts, with conservatives driving out moderates over the issue of implementation of Sharia law in the eastern state of Kelantan.
Pakatan Harapan has a slight chance to redeem itself in two by-elections scheduled for next month to replace two lawmakers who were killed in a helicopter crash while campaigning in Sarawak. However, that appears to be another mess, with PAS, which is still flirting with the opposition, demanding to field the sole opposition candidate in one of the elections, in Selangor state, or it would leave the government. Azmin Ali, the chief minister who is the apparent target of Rafizi’s charges of sexual misconduct, has in turn threatened to boot both PAS and Pakatan Harapan out of the state government. If that happens, it would in turn open the way for the government to take the state back from the opposition.
“The opposition coalition touted themselves as the Great Big Hope and many Malaysians wholeheartedly believed and supported them only to see them turn into the Great Big Disappointment,” said Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob, a political observer who lives in Selangor state.
So despite all attempts to unite, with civil groups backing their efforts, the contesting political forces continue to tear themselves apart. The next national elections – the chance to take on the Barisan and seriously contest for an electorate largely fed up with the coalition’s scandals – are in 2018. It seems almost impossible to think that the opposition could get untracked.
“It is not too wrong or fictitious to suggest that for as long as the opposition political parties collaborate out of convenience that is in reality fueled by that hope of riding on each other’s backs to gain power, voters will only keep dropping you like a hot potato,” said J D Loverencear, an opposition figure, in a letter to Asia Sentinel. “So, to DAP, Amanah, PAS, and PKR, the Barisan toasts a thank you for helping them. And at this rate Malaysians are far, far away from the post of a two party system like in the rest of the developed world democracies.”