Threat to Malaysia’s Opposition Coalition Grows

As expected, Malaysia’s Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party is threatening to pull out of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition after the Islamic fundamentalist component Parti Islam se-Malaysia on March 18 tabled a bill in the Kelantan legislature to implement the Islamic penal code.

DAP national organizing secretary Anthony Loke called PAS’s insistence on introducing the legislation a "provocation to split up Pakatan Rakyat." The DAP central committee has scheduled a meeting in Kuala Lumpur for next Monday to decide the direction the party will take, Loke said, “after being stabbed in the back by Kelantan PAS today." Loke charged that the three opposition parties had agreed that PAS show its allies a draft of the bill, but that the Islamic party has never complied with the request

"The DAP has been consistent in our stand that hudud violates the Federal Constitution and is not suitable for Malaysia's plural society,” Loke told the news portal Malaysian Insider. "From the first day of the DAP's cooperation with PAS and PKR under the Pakatan Rakyat framework after the 12th General Election in 2007, DAP has always stressed that hudud is not and cannot be part of our common agenda under Pakatan Rakyat."

The coalition has already been weakened with the jailing in January of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. The coalition has been flailing at attempts to seek new leaders. Without strong leadership, PAS has increasingly felt it could go its own way on the religious issue.

With expected passage in Kelantan, the next step is to ask the national parliament to amend the constitution to allow the practice in the impoverished northeastern state. Muslim leaders are jubilant, hoping the harsh punishment regime can spread nationwide, a possibility that horrifies Chinese, Indian and other ethnic minorities.

“I see that, God willing, the same wave will fall in Terengganu, and then maybe Pahang,” Mohamed Hafiz Mohd Nordin, the chairman of Pembela, a coalition of Muslim groups, told local reporters. Other states in the northern tier, including Perlis and Kedah, which have large rural ethnic Malay majorities, are also thought to be at risk.

The Islamic party’s decision to seek to introduce the harsh Islamic law, which calls for stoning adulterers to death and amputation of limbs for thieves among other penalties, is akin to destroying any aspirations for the opposition coalition to eventually overturn the ruling Barisan Nasional and dooms PAS’s own national ambitions, raising questions about the judgment of the party’s leader, Abdul Hadi Awang.

Whatever else Hadi is doing, his tactics have to be filling the leaders of the mainstream United Malays National Organization, the leading party in the Barisan Nasional, with glee. UMNO itself has been reeling from scandal after scandal in recent months, split into factions with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad attempting to drive Premier Najib Tun Razak from power. Late last year, party leaders were despairing that they could lose elections which must be held in 2018 at the latest. If Pakatan Rakyat dissolves into its component parts, the Barisan should be able to waltz back into power.

Hadi, like many of the old guard PAS leaders, bases his decisions entirely on his position as a religious figure, with little ability to devise national strategies or formulate economic development, sources in Malaysia say. With the death in February of the party’s patriarch, PAS leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat in February, Hadi has achieved primacy.

“If Hadi can’t keep the focus on Islamic issues, he loses his right to lead so to speak,” one source said. “Hence his insistence on pursuing hudud even although the Kelantanese themselves have indicated by an overwhelming majority that they want the focus to be on economic development” especially after floods devastated the region in December and January.

The growing tensions within PAS factions over the fundamentalists threaten to split the party, with Hadi apparently determined to drive the so-called “Erdogans” – the moderates who take their name – and philosophy -- from that of the moderate Islamic Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, out of the party. In early February, Dzulkefly Ahmad, a member of the moderates, was set upon in his home and beaten by individuals believed to be connected to the ulama, or religious leaders.

Although Kelantan Chief Minister Ahmad Yakob tabled the amendments on Wednesday, debate is expected to continue. Passage appears inevitable, given that PAS controls the state with a hefty majority. Whether it moves onto a national stage is uncertain.

However, Dzulkefly, in an interview, said there is no chance that UMNO would push the measure nationally because it would drive whatever Chinese, Indians and Christians from East Malaysia remaining in the Barisan to leave it. UMNO’s strategy, according to Dzulkefly and other including DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang, is to wreck the Pakatan coalition and leave the matter at that. With Hadi’s current ambitions looking like being fulfilled UNO may get its wish.