Malaysia's Biggest Opposition Party Under Threat

On May 5, the opposition Democratic Action Party became the second-largest political party in Malaysia, drubbing its main rival for Chinese affections, the Malaysian Chinese Association and taking 38 seats in Parliament. The election made the DAP, as the party is known, a powerhouse in Malaysian politics, with the legitimate claim to represent the country's Chinese, who make up 24.9 percent of the country's population.

Today, however, the 48-year-old DAP's status is in doubt amid allegations that the government, headed by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, has set out to put the party out of business in the wake of its electoral success.

Malaysia's Registrar of Societies on Monday invalidated the party's Dec. 15, 2012 central executive committee election over alleged intraparty irregularities during its annual general meeting after two DAP members, the vice chairman and secretary of a local branch, lodged reports in January, saying the party's election results had been manipulated to exclude them.

Tellingly, the Home Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, announced the decision against the DAP rather than waiting for the Registry of Societies to deliver a formal letter. The letter was delivered Thursday, containing the directive to hold fresh party elections.

In any case, the party's executive committee has now been ruled illegal and a new election of executive committee members must be held within a specified period, probably 30 to 60 days, according to the registry. The party, however, is refusing to hold a new election, meaning the registry could put the party out of business.

The facts appear up for grabs. Certainly the DAP appears to have made an embarrassing error in the election.

"It's their own members who took out the complaints," said the head of a think tank in Kuala Lumpur. "It was a huge embarrassment to them during the election. This is registry of societies business, it has nothing to do with anybody. The DAP, as paranoid as they are, say they are under siege."

The DAP strategist Chin Tong acknowledged in an interview that the party had erred in computing results of the election, but that it had rectified the mistake. In any case, it is questionable why the action is being taken now. Although the agency investigated the situation earlier this year and issued a letter that put the validity of the central executive committee in doubt, in the end it cleared the party for the general election. After first refusing to allow the DAP to use its "rocket" symbol on election materials, the registry relented and allowed its use.

The action raises a bigger question of how a relatively innocuous agency, the Registry of Societies, has come into use to cudgel opposition forces into submission or put them out of business. Political observers in Kuala Lumpur believe the principal aim behind the investigation and demand for a new election is to actually deregister the DAP. The Registrar, for instance, for more than a year attempted to use its muscle in a hunting expedition to seek to discredit Suaram, a human rights NGO that severely embarrassed the government by taking allegations of massive bribes over the purchase of submarines to French prosecutors. That case is still underway in France, to the government's embarrassment.

If the DAP were to be deregistered, Registrar of Societies Director-General Abdul Rahman Othman told reporters last week, there is no guarantee that the party would be able to simply reregister under a new name, as the United Malays National Organization was forced to do in 1988 after Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah challenged former Prime Minister Mahathir for the party presidency.

When the official results showed Mahathir had won, Razaleigh's supporters sued in Malaysia's highest court to invalidate the election results and pave the way for a new election on allegations that 78 of the delegates had been selected by branches not registered with the Registrar of Societies, and as a result were not eligible to vote.

Eventually, after considerable jockeying, UMNO was declared an "unlawful society." Within two weeks, however, Mahathir announced the registration of UMNO Baru - "New UMNO" - and transferred the party[s assets into the new party.

If the DAP were to be declared an illegal organization, that raises a number of different scenarios. If they were not allowed to re-register under a new name, there is conjecture that the party could begin merger talks with Anwar Ibrahim's predominantly ethnic Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

Rasiah Sivarasa, a PKR vice president and member of parliament, said the two parties had been in merger talks prior to the 2008 election, but that Lim Kit Siang, the DAP's elder statesman and de facto leader, had backed away.

"Absolutely, of course they would have to make a decision, but we would sit down and talk with them." Sivarasa said in an interview. "We have been open to this idea for a long time, not just because of the threat to deregister. Post the 2008 election, it hasn't been a major topic of public discussion, but it becomes a real option. Our immediate response, if they were to be deregistered, would be to sit down and talk."

That would create a complicated situation. Kit Siang has been the voice of the DAP virtually since its founding, although his son, now the chief minister of the state of Penang, has considerably taken over the lead, and Karpal Singh, the party chairperson, remains active.

It would remain to be seen how the clash of egos would work out with Anwar Ibrahim, who remains both the opposition leader and the PKR leader and who has shown precious little inclination to give away power.

But if that unlikely event were to take place and the two parties were to merge, it would create the country's first truly multiracial party, since the DAP is primarily Chinese, with a sprinkling of Indians, and PKR is predominantly made up of urban Malays, along with ethnic Indians as well.

In the meantime, DAP leaders reacted with outrage to the demand that they hold new elections.

"It is extraordinary for the ROS to make such a request," Lim Guan Eng, the party's general secretary, told reporters at the DAP headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. "We feel the party is being held to ransom."

Lim Kit Siang, in his blog pointed out that 71 percent of delegates had attended the December conclave was far in excess of a 25 percent quorum and that "it is most dishonest for anyone to allege that the absentee delegates are caused by a conspiracy not to give proper notification - for on this ground, the legality and legitimacy of conferences of every political party or society can be called into question.

The DAP, he said, had cooperated with the Registrar, providing proof that the prerequisite notifications had been provided to all delegates. Lim Guan Eng said a formal letter has been submitted to the Registry demanding an explanation before the party decides its strategy.