By: Murray Hunter
The fall of the Melaka state government in Malaysia earlier this month is an indication that political infighting among ethnic Malay-based parties is continuing in earnest after having become uneasy bedfellows in the 18-month scramble for power that ended when the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or king appointed Ismail Sabri Yaakob of the United Malays National Organization as the country’s prime minister last month.
This is the third prime minister in three years, after Muhyiddin Yassin was appointed prime minister due to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government collapse and the sudden resignation of Mahathir Mohamad in February 2020.
The Melaka state assembly was dissolved after four members withdrew support for UMNO chief minister Sulaiman Md Ali. That means there will most probably be a state election unless it is postponed due to considerations over the danger of spreading more infections in the pandemic.
Before the fall of the Sulaiman government, the 28-member state assembly consisted of 12 UMNO, and one Bersatu member for the government along with seven from the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, two from the moderate Islamic party Amanah, and two from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Raktyat. Another four independents supported the government.
In the pollical landslide that ended the 70-year dominance of the Barisan Nasional on a federal level in the last general election, Pakatan Harapan took over the local government with 51.11 percent of the vote, while the Barisan Nasional received 37.84 percent. The Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, which didn’t win any seats won 10.78 percent of the aggregate vote.
The Pakatan Harapan state government, led by Adly Zahari, collapsed in March 2020, shortly after its federal counterpart imploded. That coincided with the withdrawal of Bersatu and the Azmin Ali group from the Pakatan federal government to form the Muhyiddin administration with PAS and UMNO support.
The Melaka state election, if held, is set to have an impact far beyond the state. It could settle the leadership question within UMNO, determine the strength of Ismail Sabri as prime minister, decide election strategy for the Malay-based parties and indicate the viability of Pakatan Harapan retaking Putra Jaya in the next general election, which must be held on or before July 2023.
All eyes are on Bersatu, PAS, and UMNO and how they will engage each other during the Melaka state election. Although former UMNO president Ahmed Zahid Hamidi has said the Maufakat Nasional alliance with PAS is dead, and UMNO will end the Perikatan Nasional alliance with Bersatu at the general election, this is more theatrics than reality.
Ahmad Maslan, secretary general of UMNO recently told the media that seat allocation between UMNO, Bersatu, and PAS would be determined at a supreme council meeting. Due to the three parties cooperating with each other within the current federal government, it would be surprising if they don’t cooperate and present a united front, especially when the Pakatan Harapan opposition has a chance of winning the Melaka state election.
One hint that resistance to a Malay alliance wouldn’t come from the so-called “court-cluster” of indicted former leaders within UMNO, are the two recent court decisions releasing Zahid’s passport so he can receive medical treatment in Germany, and Najib Razak’s wife Rosmah’s passport, so she can visit her daughter in Singapore.
This is the first direct standoff between the Malay party grouping, and Pakatan Harapan. Melaka, as an urbanized state with an ethnic population demographic not unsimilar to the rest of the peninsula; Malays 66.8 percent, Chinese 26 percent, and Indians 6.2 percent, will be a good litmus test of how both groupings would perform nationally. In Melaka currently, state issues are very similar to those facing the rest of the country.
This makes it an open electoral contest, which could be used as a guide across most of the peninsula.
A win for Pakatan would boost morale for the coming general election. This would psychologically prime the party for a much larger fight, tipped by some pundits to be as early as mid-2022. In contrast, a win for the Bersatu-PAS-UMNO troika would boost confidence that a united front would be the best strategy to engage GE15, subject to support from GPS Sarawak, and UMNO Sabah.
The Melaka state election would be the first time Sabri and opposition leader Anwar face off in an electoral contest. If they decide not to face off by proxy, the winner would gain electoral stature. A win for Sabri would greatly strengthen his claim on the UMNO presidency and a lot more moral authority within the party machinery – enough goodwill to call the shots within the party, bringing some temporary appearance of unity.
However, with these high stakes involved, Zahid may decide to make things difficult for Ismail Sabri over such issues as the selection of candidates, possibly deciding to put in his own supporters ahead of Ismail Sabri’s. There is currently a scramble among candidates to shore up their nominations.
There is a great incentive for Anwar to take ownership of the campaign for Pakatan. A big win would make him electorally relevant again and regain waning respect.
Zahid’s wish for UMNO to go alone would greatly weaken the Malay party grouping position electorally, bringing on three-cornered fights within many constituencies. This would greatly advantage Pakatan, as was seen in a number of constituencies in the 2018 general election. An electoral fight between UMNO and Bersatu at this stage would make Zahid’s survival as UMNO president untenable.
This leads to the bigger picture. A strong win for Ismail Sabri would almost certainly lead to an early general election that could be held in conjunction with the Sarawak state election, which is tipped for February 2022. A poor performance would lead to more political infighting and instability. PAS would no doubt stand back and join the winner, as it appears to only be interested in being part of the government and controlling the religious affairs portfolio.
One sticking point to Malay party unity will be seat allocations. UMNO now has 38 seats, but lost 16 as members defected to Bersatu. Which party would be allocated candidacy against Mahathir’s Pejuang grouping? Pejuang is in a quandary over whether to fight or join the other Malay parties. Mahathir’s sticking point is the “court cluster,” which he continues to want to see in court. However, Mahathir needs to maintain a political career path for his son Mukhriz, currently an MP in Kedah. In addition, there is Maszlee Malik’s seat in Johor, now an independent struggling to hold onto it, and Syed Saddiq Syed Rahman, also an independent facing corruption charges while trying to start his own political party the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), which is rumored to be ready to field a number of young candidates across the country, although the party is struggling to obtain registration.
MUDA, together with the newly proclaimed “spoiler” Party Kuasa Rakyat formed by prime minister Ismail Sabri’s brother Kamarazaman Yaakob, is sure to mean a number of three- or even four-corned electoral contests. On face value, they look like they will disadvantage Pakatan, but this may not necessarily be the case, with Parti Kuasa Rakyat.
If Zahid does remain UMNO party president before the next general election and he gets his way of going alone, this could mean a sudden exodus of UMNO cabinet ministers, splitting the party mortally. This would lead to a very messy election where the biggest fight would be among the Malay parties themselves.
What is clear, no one party or even grouping will be able to govern federally after GE15. UMNO alone, under the best circumstances, might be able to muster 60 to 70 seats in the 222-member parliament, and that’s optimistic. Pakatan might be able to maintain its current position, and will need strong support from Sabah and Sarawak to govern. Melaka will be a good barometer.