Malaysia's Opposition Faces More Trouble

Malaysia's painstakingly crafted opposition movement appeared to be coming apart with stunning swiftness this week as it finally lost, apparently for good, one of the five states it had won in March 2008 national elections, and appeared to be threatened in a second.

As late as last month, after having picked up an important by-election in the state of Terengganu, the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition headed by Anwar Ibrahim was looking forward confidently to state elections in the East Malaysia state of Sarawak that must be held sometime over the next year or more, where it thought it could knock off the long-serving chief minister. Now, however, it finds itself on the defensive in several areas, its leadership fighting among themselves.

Although Pakatan Rakyat, the coalition of Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the Democratic Action Party and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, hold a healthy 22-14 majority in the Kedah Assembly, one coalition lawmaker, V Arumugam, was forced to resign Monday in the midst of a sex scandal, cutting the majority to seven. There are widespread reports that the United Malays National Organisation, the lead party in the Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition, is sparing no effort to peel away other Pakatan lawmakers in advance of intra-party elections next month.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak appears to have taken over full control of the effort to claw back UMNO support after a year of what appeared to be indecision and party infighting as forces aligned with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad battled it out with those aligned with the weakened Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has all but disappeared from political activity. He is expected to step down as prime minister after official elections next month.

The continuing political turmoil, however, continues to threaten investor perceptions, with the Bloomberg news service reporting Tuesday that both JPMorgan Chase and Merrill Lynch, now a unit of Bank of America, had issued warnings that the country's stock market could suffer as a possible snap election in Perak disrupts the government's ability to tackle slowing growth.

"The polls will prove a serious distraction at a point when the government should be focused on reviving the domestic economy with well-thought-out stimulus measures and execution," JPMorgan analyst Chris Oh was quoted as saying. "The economy and consequently the stock market should be big losers as a result."

In the meantime, the opposition's leadership appeared to be falling on each other, as Karpal Singh, the national chairman and longtime stalwart of the Democratic Action Party, denounced Anwar Sunday and said he was unfit to lead the opposition coalition, saying his attempts to woo Barisan lawmakers away to join the opposition in September created the foundation for the Barisan's stunning tit-for-tat coup by persuading Pakatan lawmakers in Perak to leave the opposition.

Karpal also denounced his own party leaders, Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng, for their handling of controversies involving of Islamic law in the Islamic-majority nation. He was later joined by Raja Petra Kamaruddin, perhaps the country's most popular blogger and a longtime Anwar ally, saying Anwar, Lim Kit Siang and Abdul Hadi Awang, the leader of PAS, should all resign and accept collective responsibility for the Perak statehouse debacle.

In the meantime, UMNO leaders continued to work whip up Malay public sentiment against the opposition coalition and particularly against Karpal Singh after he threatened to take Raja Azlan Shah, the highly-respected Sultan of Perak, to court in an effort to reverse the sultan's decision to name a new Barisan chief minister in the state when the Assembly was still tied 28-28. The youth wing of UMNO, which traditionally has been more activist than the main party, marched on Karpal's law office Tuesday, shouting slogans and denouncing him for insulting the country's royalty. They offered to demonstrate in front of his Kuala Lumpur office until he apologizes for the perceived slight against the royalty, which until recently had been regarded as increasingly irrelevant – especially after former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took away much of their political clout starting in the 1980s.

The DAP in particular sought to downplay Karpal Singh's outburst, with Lim Guan Eng issuing a statement that his party continues to support Anwar as the parliamentary opposition leader. Lim was quoted in local media as saying that "DAP's leadership has been consistently urging the government to enact an anti-hopping law even before the Perak crisis, and we have expressed support of our 28 MPs. As BN does not have a two-thirds parliamentary majority, the support of DAP's 28 MPs will be required to effect any constitutional amendment for such an anti-hopping laws."

The coalition's fading former majority in the northern state of Perak took yet another blow Monday when a PAS assemblyman, Roslan Shahrom, died of a heart attack while bicycling. At the same time, an arrest warrant was issued for another former Pakatan lawmaker who declined to turn up in a Perak court on charges bribery charges over a property transaction. The Pakatan coalition has charged that the bribery allegations were politically motivated.

The opposition coalition has always been an unwieldy one, split between the DAP, a Chinese chauvinist party, Anwar's moderate, middle-class Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and the fundamentalist PAS. The only glue holding the three together appears to be a desire to take power – although the same could be said of the three major ethnic parties that make up the Barisan Nasional.

The opposition coalition, however, continues to maintain its healthy minority in the Dewan Rakyat, the national assembly, after having picked up two important seats in by-elections last year. One brought Anwar back to electoral politics when he won his Penang seat in the fact of heavy spending on the part of UMNO. PAS won the second for the opposition in January in Terengganu.