Malaysian Opposition Long Shot to Topple PM

Malaysia’s disorganized and scattered opposition has announced it will call for a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Najib Razak, a vote that the Speaker of Parliament, Pandika Amin Mulia, is unlikely to allow and that is unlikely to topple Najib even if he did allow it. It is regarded more as a test of the opposition’s strength than a realistic option.

Despite two huge scandals, one over the 1Malaysia Development Bhd. government-backed investment fund, which faces billions of dollars of unfunded debt, and a second over unexplained hundreds of millions of dollars in his personal bank account, most observers say Najib will survive on a mix of patronage, make-work jobs and outright bribes to the 192 division chiefs and others who support him in the United Malays National Organization.

However, they say, the party stalwarts eventually will have to face the fact that UMNO may lose the next general election, due in 2018, because of the scandals if the opposition can build itself back into a coherent movement. Trust in government has fallen to 31 percent among the crucial ethnic Malay population, the lowest in history, according to the Merdeka Center polling organization. Najib’s own popularity is said to have fallen into the teens, although no poll has been made public.

“We now have an unelectable prime minister,” said a Malaysian businessman. But in the unlikely event that UMNO would lose a no-confidence vote, Najib could call a special election -- and given the disarray among the opposition, UMNO would probably win despite widespread concern over the scandals. "In the long run, what matters in this country is what happens inside UMNO," said a longtime observer of Malaysian politics.

Party AGM Won’t Unseat PM

The party’s annual general assembly is due sometime in December and could provide some fireworks. But Najib, with his lieutenants firmly in place, is expected to coast through it. With the election more than two years away, the decision to part company with Najib isn’t likely until sometime in 2016, the sources say, unless some new black swan event appears, such as an indictment overseas for money-laundering from investigations going on in Switzerland, the US, the UK and Singapore. However, he has weathered hugely embarrassing international stories on his family property holdings in the United States, allegations of corruption surrounding 1MDB, the reawakening of interest in the 2006 murder of Mongolian beauty Altantuya Shaariibuu and other issues.

Najib continues to fight to keep his job although reportedly his own mother, Rahah Noah, and some of his brothers have urged him to make a deal with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s fiercest critic, for safe passage rather than indictment. According to gossip in Kuala Lumpur, when Najib wavered, his wife, Rosmah Mansor, insisted he stay on.

Wan Aziz Wan Ismail, the opposition leader and head of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the leading party in the coalition, said the no confidence motion would be filed during the next two weeks of the current session of Parliament, which began today, Monday, Oct. 19. The speaker, however has previously said that a vote of no confidence is a threat to parliamentary democracy. Opposition coalition leaders almost certainly know they can’t win the vote. Even if it were allowed, the motion would be preceded by all government bills, making it problematical that the parliament would even get to it this sitting.

But, say sources in Kuala Lumpur, they want to test whether any UMNO MPs would either abstain or vote for the motion. Those who are considered possible abstentions are Muhyiddin Yassin, the former deputy prime minister whom Najib fired in July; Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who has been making desultory moves to try to set up a unity government should Najib fall -- but who yesterday asked not to be thought of as a part of the effort; Mohd Shafie Apdal, who was kicked out of the cabinet by Najib; and Mahathir, who called for the vote of no confidence personally.

Barisan has overwhelming numbers

Currently the Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition, has 132 votes in the 222 member parliament, against 90 for the opposition. Despite the fact that the government’s popularity has fallen, few observers believe significant numbers of the Barisan, including members of the Malaysian Chinese Association and Gerakan, would jump ship. Najib last week told a Gerakan general assembly that the Chinese are not pendatang – visitors – or interlopers in a country populated by Bumiputeras, or native Malays.

In addition to its numerical disadvantage, the opposition, now known after the collapse of the previous coalition as Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), has been torn apart for months over the departure of the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), which split in two over the ambitions of the party’s head, Abdul Hadi Awang, to introduce harsh Islamic law in Kelantan, the state the party controls.

A liberal Islamist wing of PAS reconstituted itself as Gerakan Harapan Baru, or New Hope Movement, headed by the former PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu, and has joined the opposition coalition. Hadi Awang’s plans are not known, but there is widespread belief that he will side his segment of the party with UMNO.

The three-party opposition coalition had always been a tenuous one, with the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, a deeply fundamentalist PAS made up predominantly of ethnic Malays and Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, made up of urban Malays and a smattering of Chinese and Indians. Without Anwar to hold them together after he was jailed on sexual perversion charges that are widely believed to have been trumped up, the coalition lost its cohesion.

The disorganization of the opposition was highlighted by the fact that a Pakatan Rakyat lawmaker, Hee Loy Sian, filed his own motion for a vote of no confidence without waiting for party leaders to do it. Wan Azizah, the wife of Anwar, said that motion would be retracted. Lim Guan Eng, the secretary general of the Democratic Action Party, was quoted by Malaysian Insider as saying the issue is of national importance and should be tabled by an opposition leader, not an ordinary lawmaker.