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.


Fading Hope for Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition of Hope?


Partyforumseasia: Sea changing election outcomes, more often than not, come with the risk of creating very high expectations on the winners’ side and their supporters, and thirst for revenge among the losers on the other hand. That looks increasingly evident for the coalition government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, which ended the six decades long rule of the UMNO/National Front administration in May last year. The unexpected victory was widely interpreted as due, and deservedly so, to the perceived corruption and money politics of UMNO and especially its leader and former Prime Minister Najib Razak. He held the ministry of finance as well, and not everybody believed that the US$ 700 million in his private accounts were nothing more than a private donation from the royals of Saudi Arabia. Political corruption, including control over a big number of government linked companies, plus the related arrogance of power were too much for a majority of voters.
But the new Mahathir government, the Pakatan Harapan or Coalition of Hope, saddled with the highest expectations of reducing the rampant politics of race and religion, and above all, their promises to care for the poorer part of the population and control the cost of living better than the Najib administration, has not delivered as expected. As a clear signal, the Coalition of Hope has just lost the 5th by-election in a row to a National Front which slowly recovers from the initial licking of wounds after being ousted. This by-election in Tanjung Piai, a constituency in the federal state of Johor, turned out to be a humiliating defeat for the Coalition of Hope. It had won the seat in 2018 with a narrow margin of just 524 votes and lost last week by 15,086 votes, a ratio of 1for the Coalition of Hope and 2.5 for UMNO, this time with support of the Islamic party PAS. UMNO and PAS have been competing for the Malay vote for decades, but entered into a marriage of convenience only a couple of months ago.


What is certainly difficult to swallow for all Malaysians who had voted for change, is the open jubilation of Ex-PM Najib Razak among the UMNO leaders and the winning candidate. The man is facing numerous charges of corruption and embezzlement, but the court procedures are difficult and slow. And Najib’s lawyers are trying everything to slow it down even further, because, if the Mahathir coalition should fail and collapse, Najib might get away from his nightmare of ending up in prison. And for too many voters the 4.5 billion US$ which have vanished from the 1MDB Sovereign Investment Fund under his control are obviously too abstract and complicated to remember.

The Tanjung Piai constituency has some 57 per cent Malay voters, but the Chinese minority is increasingly disappointed by the very Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) which, so far, has not managed to capitalize on its new role as a coalition partner in government. For many of its members and supporters the party does not shine and remains all too quiet in the shadow of PM Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. This widespread criticism may not be completely justified and fair, because one big question is dominating the public debate and keeping the wildest rumours alive:


Anwar Ibrahim (72) and Azmin Ali (55): Who will be the next Prime Minister?

The big issue is the mystery around the succession of 94-year-old PM Mahathir. To cobble together the new coalition against UMNO and Najib, Mahathir had promised to hand the premiership over to Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the Peoples Justice Party (PKR), within two years. Mahathir’s sometimes cryptic statements oscillate between strong confirmation and remarks that he must solve the most urgent problems first. In addition, there are two factions in the Coalition of Hope, one supporting Anwar, and another being against Anwar and supporting Azmin Ali, the Minister of Economic Affairs. The latter’s meeting last Monday with a bigger group of UMNO MPs did not help to reduce speculations and rumours.

The political development is not encouraging. Hopes for a “New Malaysia” without corruption and race and religion issues are more difficult to maintain, and the Malay majority has as many grievances as the strong Chinese and the Indian Minorities, and the poor people don’t see improvements in their livelihood. The old forces around UMNO, with secret and open support by the over 90 per cent Malay civil servants which feel less privileged under the new governmnet, will do anything necessary to come back to power. With every by-election the number games are starting from scratch, though right now, the majority of the Pakatan government still looks rather stable.


Malaysia: End of the Selangor Menteri Besar Saga? Not Really.


Partyforumseasia: After nearly nine months of “gestation”, the drama around the replacement of Khalid Ibrahim, chief minister of Malaysia’s richest federal state of Selangor, comes to an end. In the unique set up of leaving the final appointment of his replacement to the local Sultan, the new chief minister will be Mr. Azmin Ali. Sultan 2He is the Selangor chief of Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and its vice president on the national level. Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah thus thwarted the strategically desastrous attempt of PKR to establish Anwar Ibrahim’s wife Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as chief minister. The series of political moves brought the opposition coalition of PKR, Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Muslim party PAS to the abyss of breaking apart and undermined the standing and authority of de facto coalition leader Anwar Ibrahim. It really looks like the UMNO and Barisan Nasional dream of neutralizing the opposition threat is coming true (see our 30 July post), their leaders must be watching their luck in disbelief. Their initial input was preventing Anwar Ibrahim from running for the Selangor state parliament and eventually taking over as chief minister himself by simply reviving the dubious sodomy case against him. If this triggered Anwar’s decision to let his wife run instead, the Pandora box was open. One strategic mistake followed the other and created internal problems of the coalition partners, especially in PAS.
Strategy-wise there were arguably several mistakes:
1. The evidence against chief minister Khalid Ibrahim was not sufficient to sack him immediately. For his obviously unexpected refusal to step down there was no plan B.

2. Obviously the necessary early co-ordination with the coalition partners was neglected. The move looked more like a strongman decision by Anwar Ibrahim.
3. The final say-power of the Sultan seems to have been underestimated with the coalition’s focus on a narrow majority in the state parliament for Dr. Wan Azizah.
4. The internal mood in PAS and its controversial discussion about a female chief minister has not been taken seriously enough. The tensions within the party between a more religious (Ulama) and a more liberal (Erdogan) faction would have necessitated a more sensitive approach by PKR.
5. By not considering long term supporter Azmin Ali as a natural choice for Khalid’s succession Anwar himself created tensions and factional divisions in PKR.

Outlook: After the PAS party convention last weekend, which also weakened PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition of anyway not too compatible partners is still standing. But it looks definitely more fragile  and a lot less dangerous for the UMNO government. Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership prestige is definitely dented. It will be more difficult than ever before in the last six years of its existence to hold the coalition together.