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.