Malaysian Opposition Crisis Boils Over

The Malaysian opposition coalition headed by Anwar Ibrahim is in serious danger of tearing itself apart over the issue of who will lead the coalition as chief minister of Selangor, the country’s most prosperous and populous state.

After months of squabbling, Anwar on Aug. 9 finally sacked Abdul Khalid Ibrahim as chief minister, who refused to go. Khalid responded on Aug. 12 by firing all of Anwar's allies from Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the Democratic Action Party on the state'e executive council, leaving Selangor in the hands of his own allies from the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia. That was in apparent reply to an ultimatum by the DAP that PAS, the second wing of Anwar’s coalition, state immediately whether or not it would back Anwar’s decision to make his wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, the chief minister. The DAP and Parti Keadilan called an emergency meeting to try to decide what to do.

There is conjecture that Khalid also has the quiet backing of the United Malays National Organization, the biggest ethnic party in the national ruling coalition. UMNO is wooing PAS to try to use the crisis to wrest the state back from the opposition although it only has 12 seats in the 56-seat assembly. Selangor is the jewel in the Pakatan Rakyat crown. DEputy UNO President Muhyiddin Yassin has already issued a public statement that the state’s 12 UMNO lawmakers would back Khalid, raising the pressure on both Anwar to get PAS in line, and on PAS to decide which side of the fence it intends to be on.

“UMNO has played this brilliantly,” said a longtime political observer. ”The question is whether they have shown their hands too early.”

If UMNO could pull the 12 PAS members of the Selangor assembly away from the opposition coalition, that would give them at least 24 votes in the 56-person assembly with the remaining votes in the hands of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan and the DAP, suddenly opening the door to horse trading. There is precedent. In 2008, in a stunning defeat for the Barisan, the opposition took the state of Perak. In 2009, however, newly minted Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak persuaded three opposition members to jump ship amid accusations that millions of ringgit had changed hands, with the three becoming independents. Ultimately, the Barisan took the state back from the opposition and kept it in the 2013 election.

The widespread feeling among political analysts in Kuala Lumpur is that the whole fiasco mainly demonstrates Anwar’s inability to discipline his own party and his coalition. Internal divisions within the party have nearly destroyed it, with prominent figures like former Justice Minister Zaid Ibrahim joining the party and then leaving in anger. In other opposition-held states, the dominant political party has had the right to name the chief minister. Only in Selangor has that custom not held and it is laid at Anwar’s doorstep.

Khalid, a former CEO of the powerful plantation company Kumpulan Guthrie, has gathered unlikely allies. PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang ultimately would like to make another ally, Parti Keadilan vice president Azmin Ali, the chief minister following Khalid’s reign. While Azmin is a member of Anwar’s own party, the two are rivals.

In the meantime, PAS has repeatedly clashed with the moderate Malays of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the Chinese of the DAP, pushing fundamentalist issues over female dress, liquor, etc., and in particular seeking to institute hudud,a medieval system of punishments under religious law that includes stoning for adulterers and amputation of limbs for various crimes, in Kelantan, the state it controls. Insiders say PAS had promised not to push those issues when it joined the coalition. Hudud apparently has been put on the back burner, at least temporarily, for fear that it really would tear the coalition apart irrevocably.

Internal dissatisfaction has grown over Khalid’s stewardship, culminating in an attempt earlier this year by Anwar to replace him by himself through a by-election that ultimately was won by Anwar’s wife after Anwar was disqualified by an appellate court. Public irritation with the opposition coalition’s stewardship of the state has continued to grow over such issues as garbage collection and the decision to build a major highway6 through a residential district. Also, the incidence of dengue fever has been rising inexorably, with the blame falling on the leadership for not pushing public health authorities more to control it instead of squabbling. Finally, the state finds itself in the grip of the worst drought in decades, with the public accusing the government of not doing enough to enhance water production.

Other sources say those reasons are valid, but that in fact there is considerable wrangling behind the scenes over whose side gets lucrative government contracts for infrastructure and other civic improvements.

The stakes are crucial for not just the opposition coalition but for the country. If Pakatan Rakyat comes apart, it would doom for the foreseeable future any chance that the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition, could be unseated from its position in power. The Barisan lost the popular vote in the 13th general election in 2013 by 50.87 percent to Pakatan Rakyat’s 47.38 percent but stayed in power through gerrymandered districts and the first-past-the-post electoral system. Given the dissention inside the opposition, many political observers believe that could well be the coalition’s high point.