With the wild rumors swirling about an early date for the next general election in Malaysia, everybody wonders about the chances of the opposition to win in its third attempt. 2008 and 2013 saw important advances against the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional or BN) coalition, but the gerrymandered election system, expensive gifts to certain voter groups, clever fear mongering, and insufficient co-ordination among the opposition parties kept UMNO and BN comfortably in power.
Prime minister Najib Razak, who is also president of UMNO, quite shrewdly managed to dismantle the People’s Pact (Pakatan Rakyat or PR) by eliminating its leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, probably the only politician who could unite the opposition. The seventy-year-old leading figure of the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat), is still in jail with a controversial conviction for sodomy and banned from politics for five years. For the ruling BN coalition, the end of the Pakatan Rakyat in 2015 was a dream come true.
PM Najib, in the meantime, had other dangerous problems. The 1MDB financial scandal with billions disappeared from this state fund and hundreds of millions discovered in the prime minister’s private accounts would have led to his resignation or unseating in most other political systems. Not so in Malaysia. With remarkable cold blood and chutzpah, Najib has not only survived the storm so far but cemented his leadership in party and coalition as well.
But the opposition is reorganizing itself as well. And 91-year-old veteran politician and former long-term prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is playing an interesting role in this new game. He has left UMNO and started a new party, the United Indigenous Party (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or PPBM) and just joined the new opposition coalition, the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan).
This new coalition unites now four opposition parties, namely Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a Chinese-dominated party with a socialist approach, the National Trust Party (Parti Amanah Negara), a splinter from Islamist PAS, and Mahathir’s PPBM as newest member since 20 March. The PH coalition is planning to optimize its forces by campaigning with a common logo and without competing against each other in any constituency.
With PAS keeping a hostile distance toward Pakatan Harapan because of the “anti-Malay” DAP and the “renegade” Amanah, the opposition has lost a former ally with a stable number of seats in the national parliament. The BN coalition of UMNO and twelve component parties holds 132 of the 222 seats. To oust BN and PM Najib, the opposition would need at least 112 seats. This looks like a tall order at the moment, up from 75 in the sitting parliament.
The next general election is formally only due by August 2018, but in the British tradition, the prime minister can call it earlier at his discretion and sense of opportunity. Najib is obviously playing the guessing game for all, has started the BN campaign machinery, and, most importantly, has survived the financial scandal so far with gaining more strength and power in his own party and coalition. His power to fire any internal critic and any civil servant or legal office bearer, and his grip on the government’s and the party’s cash flows, make him look more or less unbeatable. Large parts of the population, especially his Malay vote banks, seem to be relatively unfazed by the financial scandal, and the new proximity with PAS and its Islamist hudud (Muslim criminal punishments) project makes it even more difficult for the opposition.
But no election victory is ever guaranteed. With all the instruments in his hand, from the Election Commission to the money supply and distribution, the prime minister may still be feel too sure about winning. If the Pakatan Harapan coalition manages to unite and avoid all three cornered fights, and, of course, find the appropriate central message to the voters, nothing can be excluded.