Malaysia’s Changed Political Landscape

The March 8 national elections in Malaysia have left politics in such a state of flux that one could construct about as many scenarios as there are politicians in the country over the future of the just-elected parliament. With the opposition for the first time strong enough to mount a serious challenge to the Barisan Nasional, or the ruling coalition of ethnic parties, the country appears to have been forced by the elections to embark on a bout of democracy.

Just how messy things have become, at least for the United Malays National Organisation, is shown by the success of the Sultan of Terengganu, who also happens to be the King at present, in getting his preference accepted as Mentri Besar (chief minister) rather than the nominee of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Badawi, universally known as Pak Lah, at first declared the move unconstitutional but an UMNO Supreme Council meeting on March 27 decided to accept the sultan’s choice to end the dispute and avoid having to face a by-election that could have led to the loss of yet another state to the opposition.

The sultan’s override of the premier’s UMNO candidate is both an exhibit of Badawi’s weak position and the most blatant illustration of the royal rulers’ attempt to use the changed political situation to turn their heretofore nominal powers as constitutional monarchs into real ones. Earlier the Sultan of Perlis also overrode the PM’s choice, but on this occasion with the support of the UMNO assemblymen.

The UMNO Supreme Council also knocked back a suggestion that party elections for top posts be postponed to next March, by which time, so Badawi’s supporters believe, his position would be strengthened. As it is, branch and division elections will be held between July and November and the top posts in December.

It will still be difficult for challengers to get on the ballot as they need the support of 30 percent of the divisions. However, anti-Badawi sentiment could easily snowball. Meanwhile there remains the possibility that things can be brought to a head much earlier if Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah succeeds in his effort to gather enough support to call an Extraordinary General Meeting to discuss the reasons for the party’s electoral failure and to force Badawi to step down. Razaleigh, a onetime finance minister in the 1980s, has not been in government since he split with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad two decades ago but cultivates an elder statesman aura at a time when UMNO is devoid of obvious younger talent

Sketching Scenarios

These are only some basic alternative possibilities. The number of more detailed scenarios is huge. Here are a few:

1. Badawi hangs on by the skin of his teeth. By the time of the UMNO elections and party meeting later this year, the blame game within the party has subsided and division heads look to restoring party unity as a first step to regaining favour with the electorate. He is helped by UMNO’s loyalty traditions and the lack of an obvious immediate successor with sufficient support. Razaleighi is viewed by many as too old and tainted by the way he split the party when he lost to Mahathir.

Anti-Badawi dissidents prove insufficiently united to mount a successful challenge, and deputy prime minister Najib Tun Razak remains unwilling to do so for fear of unleashing a barrage of allegations about defense contract kickbacks, his wife’s behavior and his relationships with parties involved in the notorious murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian translator allegedly executed by two of his bodyguards in 2006 on behalf of his best friend. All three are standing trial for the murder.

Najib figures his best chance of succeeding is to leave Badawi where he is on the understanding that he will make way for Najib well before the next election. Mahathir’s efforts to unseat Badawi are blunted by revival of the issue of the 1988 sacking of Chief justice Salleh Abbas and other independent judges who would not do Mahathir’s bidding. Badawi keeps his son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin, focus of much unpopularity, out of sight. He is also helped by some new ministers who proving to be active in introducing fresh ideas and appearing to respond to public complaints on corruption, inflation, reform of the judiciary and non-Muslim religious issues.

2. Razaleigh fails to get an EGM, but chaos reigns at state levels with pro- and anti- Badawi factions squabbling a long the lines of what has been happening in Terengganu, with the country’s nine sultans using the situation to enhance their own power and show up Badawi’s lack of authority and credibility. As a well-known defender of royal privileges, Razaleigh stirs the pot.

Under this scenario, opinion polls show Badawi to be still very unpopular which makes it easy for UMNO delegates to be in denial over broader dissatisfactions with UMNO rule, originating in the corruption, authoritarianism and abuse of power of the Mahathir era. Members decide that Badawi must go. But with many harbouring concerns about Najib, Razaleigh’s bid for power looks viable. Najib is opposed to letting in Razaleigh who, despite his age, may stay PM long enough to block him or provide a stepping stone for the return to UMNO of the current de facto opposition leader, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, whom Mahathir sacked and was jailed, or the emergence of new, younger UMNO candidates.

But Najib is not strong enough to stop Razaleigh, who gets support from Badawi’s former supporters as the party turns to an elder statesman, albeit one who badly split the party in the past, and who still carries some baggage from the Bank Bumiputra scandal of the 1980s. Even Mahathir is prepared to forget the past in order to spite his successor.

A variant on this is that the situation within UMNO deteriorates even faster, Badawi loses control of the Supreme Council more divisions and the EGM does take place with the above result.

3. Badawi’s nerve fails. Already nicknamed “Sleepy” because of critics’ belief that he is inattentive, he decides that the strain of being prime minister under these circumstances is too much. He is willing to resign and let the party decide whether to choose Najib, Razaleigh or a third candidate (International Trade Minister MuhyiddinYassin looks the most likely of the current bunch of senior party figures) with the proviso that son-in-law Khairy and other members of his family are protected.

4. As UMNO disarray develops, Anwar’s feelers to disgruntled UMNO legislators and some non-UMNO BN members from Sarawak and Sabah to move to Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the People’s Justice Party and the leading party in the Barisan Rakyat, the opposition coalition, provide it with sufficient numbers to oust UMNO. Already one Sabah member has resigned from a deputy minister position. The arithmetic makes this looks unlikely at present as 30 would need to change sides. But there is no UMNO loyalty among the local parties from Sarawak, which hold 54 of the Barisan Nasional seats.

Recent statements threatening to make party-hopping illegal suggest that UMNO, which has plenty of experience luring opponents into its fold, is worried. Such a scenario would pave the way for the return of Anwar who, despite his many enemies, has greater stature at home and abroad than any of the other candidates. From May, when his period of ineligibility due to his 1998 jailing ends, he will become eligible to stand for parliament and appears likely to become official leader of the coalition.

5. Desperate to find a formula which will reverse the erosion of support for UMNO – whether or not Badawi stays for the time being – the party offers Anwar the right of return and the top job after a short interval. This would be bitterly opposed by many in UMNO, particularly those close to Najib and Mahathir, but UMNO feels Anwar is too popular to be left outside the tent. Anwar’s ambition to be prime minister overrides his commitment to the Barisan Rakyat and he takes a big chunk of Keadilan with him, all the while promising to reform UMNO and to re-make the Barisan Nasional in the multi-racial image of the Barisan Rakyat.

6. Determined to hang on regardless of losing the support of large numbers of UMNO legislators, Badawi offers to go into a grand coalition with the Barisan Rakyat. Despite opposition from the majority of UMNO, he has enough support from reform-minded UMNO figures, including recent respected and independent ministerial appointees like Shahrir Abdul Samad and Zaid Ibrahim, to proceed. He stays as Prime minister, at least for now, and agrees to a reform agenda with Anwar, who thus become heir apparent again.

7. When parliament assembles in late April, the opposition tables a no-confidence vote against Badawi. Enough UMNO or other Barisan Nasional members stay away for the vote which is carried, forcing the prime minister to resign. Up steps Najib, or Razaleigh, to claim the crown. The BR rapidly comes to regret this move as the new UMNO administration decides to put an end to Badawi’s tolerant ways, blaming him for giving space for the opposition to develop. It cracks down on new found freedoms and threatens or even imposes a state of emergency.

These are all UMNO leadership scenarios of varying degrees of likelihood. Some of them the BR can view from a distance, preferring to focus on trying to keep its coalition together and make a success of government in the five states it controls – which together with the Federal Territory, also a BR stronghold – account for more than half the Malaysian economy. However there are also some more worrying possibilities.

Too Early for Congratulations

Malaysians have rightly congratulated themselves on the calm atmosphere in which the political near-revolution has taken place. Some initial nervousness has given way to a degree of euphoria about Malaysian political maturity and advances in ethnic harmony. Whereas a similar government setback in 1969 sparked a violent Malay reaction and days of race riots, this time the anti-government result was achieved because of an unprecedented level of harmony as the three opposition components put aside some communal issue for ones on which they could agree. In the process all became more moderate and able to talk to each other.

But some fear that this national mood of calm is fragile. Missteps by opposition-held state governments could yet spark racial tension – this is most problematic in Penang where Malays are in a minority and the newly ascendant Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party will need to keep its Chinese chauvinist instincts on a tight leash. Some at least in UMNO will want to use any sign of tension or Chinese over-confidence to claim that Malays are threatened. Already some of the Malay press, Utusan in particular, is full of letters (written in-house, say critics) warning Malays of the dangers they face and the need for unity under UMNO.

As in 1969, there are surely some in UMNO who would like to fan communal flames to create a crisis which both provides UMNO figures with keris-waving opportunities and an excuse for a crackdown on the opposition generally and the non-Malay opposition in particular.

Given the support that ethnic Malays have given to Keadilan as well as to PAS, this looks improbable – it is estimated that in Peninsular Malaysia 47 percent voted for the Barisan Rakyat, and in Kuala Lumpur and the Klang valley surrounding the city the figure was well above 50 percent. Nonetheless, UMNO still controls the levers of central power and Malays dominate the armed forces, the police and other key institutions.

Some may feel, or allege, that the influence of the non-Malays within the Barisan Rakyat and its effort to de-emphasise Malay preferences are a threat to Malay supremacy. Although most Malaysians, even Barisan Nasional voters, seem happy with the zeal for reform, for racial harmony, and for the upsetting of entrenched interests, represented by the election, there are dangers that a wounded UMNO, deprived of access to funds in the states it has lost, will be unwilling to learn lessons, will become a nastier not a new UMNO.

That may depend on who becomes leader, and under what circumstances.