Malaysia's Opposition Strategy to Return to Power

Focusing on winning the coming general election

By: Murray Hunter

Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who formed Malaysia’s new government without the benefit of election – as his predecessor did – may have a honeymoon period with an exhausted electorate hoping for political peace, but how long that will last is debatable. Sabri, himself under quarantine after having come in contact with a constituent infected with Covid-19, faces a pandemic that shows no sign of abating, with more than 300,000 cases in the past two weeks and with deaths rising by 16 percent over that period.

During the past few months of Covid-necessitated movement restrictions, Malaysians have felt abandoned by the government, particularly as the factions fought for power. The accompanying economic downturn, with forecasts again having been downgraded, will favor the out-of-power Pakatan Harapan government, especially if the current government doesn’t handle it better than the former one.

Chances are it won’t, as the Sabri ministry is essentially the same as the former Muhyiddin ministry. Sabri has retained 31 ministers and 38 deputy ones, including four senior posts created by Muhyiddin to keep factions in his Malay-majority government happy.

Nonetheless, Sabri’s reconstituted government should continue through to the next general election, designated GE15, due by July 2023, or perhaps even earlier. As with Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional government, Sabri was appointed by the king to rule in lieu of an election.

This means the only alternative for Pakatan Harapan, which took power in 2018 as a reform movement only to lose it again through missteps and the precipitous resignation of its leader, Mahathir Mohamad, is to settle into being the opposition, presenting itself as a credible alternative government and developing an effective shadow cabinet, both to prepare it to lead by developing policy and to winnow out its less-effective leaders.

Pakatan Harapan currently has 105 MPs, just seven short of a majority that would enable it to once again form a government. Before it lost power, the coalition had a comfortable working majority in parliament. The big question is how many constituencies it could pick up in the next general election or GE15.

Given the pandemic and economic conditions, it is highly likely that the Sabri government will become unpopular enough to be threatened over the next two years. By that time voters will have forgotten the failings of Pakatan Harapan’s 20-month reform interregnum between 2018 and 2020 in which it lost five by-elections and stumbled in its attempts to push reforms through Parliament.

But events should wipe its slate clean, sending it into the next election campaign facing an unpopular government. Given the makeup of the government, internal infighting between UMNO, Muhyiddin’s faction and the rural Islamist PAS could lead to three-cornered constituency fights in the coming election, favoring Pakatan. GE15 is for Pakatan Harapan to win if it starts preparing now, especially with the voting age lowered to 18. The Malaysian Electoral Commission projects extra 7.8 million voters by 2023, giving Pakatan Harapan have an extra advantage, increasing the need for new young candidates to capture the interest of the young generation.

Pakatan’s abbreviated 20-month term enabled a mix of younger and older leaders to gain some ministerial experience, including Ignatius Darrel Leiking of Warisan, Xavier Jayakumar and Baru Bian of PKR, Anthony Loke, Kularsegaran Murugaran, Gobind Singh, Yeo Bin Yin, and Teresa Kok of DAP. A host of deputy ministers and state councilors gained administrative experience from the state governments as well.

Not promises, just the new deal

The coalition must avoid the massive mistake of the GE14 campaign by making promises that couldn’t be fulfilled, partly the reason it lost those five by-elections, a psychological boost to UMNO that gave the party momentum. Instead, it needs to outline a general policy on which to base future initiatives. The race-based New Economic Policy (NEP) that has saddled the country for the past 60 years could be revised to become the New Deal (ND), a needs-based approach aimed at the economically and socially disadvantaged at the expense of the elite and kleptocrats who used it to enrich themselves.

Pakatan Harapan must oppose foreign interference and influence that threatens the country’s integrity. Foreign donations to political parties should be outlawed, and those to NGOs made publicly transparent. Only Malaysians should be allowed influence in Malaysia’s political destiny.

Over the past decade, PAS under the leadership of Abdul Hadi Awang has been moving towards the hard-line philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood, a gross departure from the Islamic theology espoused by the late PAS and ABIM president Fadzil Noor. Amanah, the moderate wing of PAS that broke away to become a part of the Pakatan coalition, must develop a counter-narrative in the Malay heartland.

Anwar as “interim prime minister”

Anwar Ibrahim needs to demonstrate to the Malaysian public that his quest to become prime minister is not just about his personal ambitions. There is a section of Malaysian electors who dislike him. This group has to be won over not to Anwar but to Pakatan Harapan.

To another segment of the Malaysian electorate, Anwar is a hero and deserves a chance to govern. He needs to publicly put his personal ambitions aside and humbly declare that he sees any term as prime minister as interim, to nurture a successor who doesn’t yet need to be named, as many talented people could in the future take this mantle. Anwar’s best utilization will be on the frontlines of the Malay heartlands, where the election will be won or lost. Anwar has to effectively do what Mahathir did during the GE14 election campaign – gain the electorate’s trust in a Pakatan Harapan government.

The symbolism of a deputy prime minister from Sabah can be electorally powerful. Shafie Apdal of Warisan is that person and has a major job in delivering Sabah to the Pakatan coalition.

A tough political fight on the peninsula

The peninsula is set to be a tough and bitterly fought campaign, with the parties strongly embedded in their traditional territories. If PAS and UMNO keep their electoral pact and don’t run against each other, they stand to potentially pick up an incredible 32 constituencies. The only factor that would prevent such an onslaught would be a very unpopular government, with Pakatan projecting themselves as a viable alternative.

This is the Pakatan Achilles heel that PKR and Amanah in particular, must fully prepare for. It is most likely PAS or UMNO will pick up the Mahathir group of constituencies in the northern Kedah area as well as other endangered ones across the peninsula. UMNO or PAS will likely pick up the one currently held by Azmin Ali, a onetime Parti Keadilan Rakyat lieutenant whose defection to Mahathir played a major role in bringing down the Pakatan Harapan government.

Pakatan must hold these constituencies and focus on 17 other ones they have some chance of picking up. It is thus certain that Peninsular Malaysia will see some of the most bitterly fought electoral battles ever seen in the country.

The major issue will most probably be the economy. The current government may try and run the full parliamentary term, hoping for economic recovery before the election. Most of these constituencies are in the Malay heartlands. In the last election, most Pakatan social media was focused on urban areas. This election, a major effort must be made on social media campaigns in the heartland.

The successful research and image creation organization INVOKE developed by former Parti Keadilan secretary-general Rafizi Ramli has a major challenge ahead. Last election, it handled the electoral campaigns of 50 PH candidates.

The battle for Sarawak

There are 31 federal parliamentary constituencies in Sarawak, the state governing coalition Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) won 19, Pakatan 10, with 2 independents elected. In GE15 there are five GPS constituencies in play. At the same time, any small backlash against Pakatan would lose them three more.

Pakatan has a big decision to make in Sarawak. One is to woo GPS over to their side and collect a block of 19 constituencies, enough to form a comfortable majority in parliament, i.e., 124 MPs, based on 2018 figures. The other alternative is to go all out and campaign to try and win the six seats that could change hands. This strategy would net Pakatan between 0-6 new MPs, getting them very close to forming a government.

Ideally, the best option would be to negotiate with the GPS, as they are a very strong state government and unlikely to be defeated. Picking up six new seats in Sarawak is not impossible, but would take a lot of hard work, and just as much luck. Insiders say the great problems with negotiating any PH-GPS agreement are the egos and sincerity of the negotiators. In addition, Pakatan cannot prove they can win the peninsula. GPS is only interested in supporting the coalition that will form government.

Hold Sabah through the bayu

Sabah is volatile electorally with a long history of changing political alliances. The Pakatan relationship with Warisan brings nine MPs to the coalition, with three each from DAP and PKR, bring Pakatan 15 MPs out of a possible 25 MPs from the state. There are a number of volatile constituencies in Sabah and a good Pakatan campaign could bring the coalition two or three extra seats. A poor campaign could bring the opposite, where Sabah elections are often affected by state and local issues.

The Pakatan Harapan coalition needs to stay united and follow a precise electoral strategy to earn its way to electoral victory next general election.


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