Near Self-Destruction Here and New Unity There. Volatility and Dynamics of the Malaysian Political Party Scene

Partyforumseasia: Malaysia’s party political scene, after six decades of predictability under the dominance of UMNO’s National Front government, and a turbulent start of the Coalition of Hope since its May 2018 surprise victory, is getting somewhat messy. As ususal after regime changes, the initial public support and the high expectations come down to a more sober realism and disappointment that campaign promises are not followed by prompt delivery. The cost of living issues of the masses are certainly as important as they had contributed to the downfall of the Najib regime, though the latter’s corruption conviction is still pending but slowly getting boring for most voters.

What is dominating the media and public debate these days are the succession of 94- year-old PM Mahathir Mohamad by Anwar Ibrahim, leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR or People’s Justice Party), the biggest party in the ruling coalition with 50 seats in parliament. The PKR Congress, ending today, 8 December, in Malakka, is brutally showing the lack of unity in the party and the divided support for Anwar and his deputy Azmin Ali. Both have distinct supporter groups in the party, especially in the youth wing. Despite an amicable meeting and propagated consensus between the two leaders on the day before the congress, the conflict broke out much too visibly and telegenic with turmoil inside and outside the conference venue and fighting of the enraged representatives, angry on behalf of the leaders they wanted to prevail. The sacking of faithful supporters on both sides was adding fuel to the fire, the program for the four days and the list of speakers was suddenly a casus belli. In addition, the special Malaysian variety of gutter politics with new accusations of indecent behaviour against Anwar Ibrahim who had spent already many years in prison for alleged sodomy, made the internal divisions within the PKR even more interesting for the media.
Germany’s first post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer had formulated the partisanship within a political party with this famous quotation: There are enemies, mortal enemies, and there are party comrades... And another politician of this period, leader of a smaller party, used to say: No power in the world can destroy our party unless we do it ourselves.
The impression that PKR was close to self-destruction these last four days was being shared by many observers and the media, probably with some sort of glee among the opposition which are still licking their wounds from the unexpected defeat last year but starting to organise their return to power as well.

In stark contrast to the PKR turmoil, a parallel congress of the UMNO (Picture below) party celebrated unity and the new alliance with former arch enemy Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). The latter’s president Hadi Awang, who used to call the UMNO members “infidels” years ago, was guest of honour on stage, and UMNO leader Zahid Hamidi announced the impending formalisation of the new alliance as “Muafakat Nasional” or National Consensus. Cut off from quasi unlimited financial supply under the Najib government, when political funding was not regulated and formally not illegal, though corrupt, the opposition parties are short of cash and limited in their campaigning, but disappointment with the ruling Coalition of Hope might fuel energy and new hope among UMNO and Pas members and their remaining partners in the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which are relics of the former National Front led by UMNO.
As everywhere, voters with an interest in politics dislike open infighting in political parties which make the party and the leaders look weak, and regularly punish this PR disaster with the withdrawal of their electoral support. Success and ultimately the survival of the Coalition of Hope will depend on how they can solve the internal problems and above all the succession drama around Anwar Ibrahim. In his long, distinguished as well as dramatic political career, Anwar has sacrificed and suffered more than most top politicians. He is experienced and charismatic as few others, but this does not mean that the premiership is guaranteed. He is 72 years old in the meantime, but certainly young compared to Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who sometimes confirms the succession of Anwar, sometimes remains cryptic about how long he plans his own term in office. Many reform minded Malaysians want Anwar at the helm and hope for an end of race and religion in the country’s politics.


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