Deal delivers boost to Malaysia’s opposition, but it’s still “not going to win”

By: Euan Black - Posted on: July 17, 2017 | Current Affairs

The opposition coalition has brought an end to the impasse between factions led by Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad, but analysts say the deal is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the upcoming general election

Jailed Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim pays last respect to his late father in Kajang, Malaysia, 05 April 2015. Photo: EPA/Fazry Ismail

The Malaysian opposition coalition received a welcome boost on Friday when a deal was struck to make Anwar Ibrahim the de facto leader of Pakatan Harapan (PH) and the former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, its chairman, bringing an end to a stalemate between separate factions led by the two leaders.

The deal, which also named Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, as the president of the coalition, means that Anwar will become the country’s prime minister should he be granted a pardon in the event that the coalition wins the upcoming general election. Anwar has been in prison since February 2015 when he was found guilty of sodomy for the second time.

In May, the Pan Islamic Asian Party (PAS) ended its ten-year alliance with Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the basis of the previous opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, due to disagreements about the implementation of the Islamic criminal system, or hudud, in Malaysia.

The end of the alliance was seen as a major setback for the opposition, but the new deal between Anwar and Mahathir has gone a long way in boosting PH’s election prospects and demonstrated that the coalition is operating more effectively than its predecessor, said Helen Ting Mu Hung, a senior politics fellow at the National University of Malaysia.

“The four PH component parties appear to be able to work together more coherently on issues related to governance when compared to PR, [which included] PAS as a member,” she said, adding that the end to speculation about who would lead a PH government would protect the opposition against tried-and-tested attacks.

“The agreed top leadership lineup would also dispel one favorite strategy of ruling UMNO politicians who stoke the fear among [the] Malay electorate that should the opposition win, they would be ruled by a coalition dominated by non-Malay politicians from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a component party of the Pakatan Harapan.”

Yet while the opposition coalition’s prospects had undoubtedly improved, James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute, said that “as long as PAS supports United Malays National Organisation (UNMO), PH are still not going to win the next general election”.

“PAS is the kingmaker in this general election,” he said. The party has seen its popularity rise along with a surge in conservative Islamist sentiments among voters.

Should the coalition prove Chin wrong, Anwar Ibrahim would be preceded by an as yet undecided interim prime minister until the jailed opposition figure was pardoned.

While PH is expected to rail against the corrupt nature of the incumbent regime by pointing to its involvement in the ongoing 1MDB corruption scandal, UMNO, the major party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, will likely exploit the growing sense of nationalism in the country.

“UMNO will play up Mahathir as a race traitor and how Malays will be finished if PH wins. They will also play the card that PH is by controlled by the Chinese and infidels,” said Chin.

“The most important thing to remember is that it’s the Malay community in the rural areas who will decide the outcome so all of PH firepower will be on the rural Malay community. The urban areas are PH’s strongholds.”