The End looks Nigh for Malaysia’s UMNO


Partyforumseasia:  Political parties come and go, have ups and downs, win and lose elections. In many European countries, party systems which have been stable for many decades disintegrate, previously unthinkable coalitions demand all sorts of difficult compromises. In Germany, the Social Democrats with a history going back to 1863 and many years of dominating in government, are agonizing in federal state elections under 10% and with a helpless leadership. In Malaysia, now, it seems to be the turn of UMNO, the dominant party for over sixty years. On 9 May this year, it lost more than an election. It obviously lost its soul and raison d’etre, its self-confidence and successively all its allies. From a coalition of 13 parties which helped to cement the grip on power for so long, only the former ethnic minority vote banks, Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) with only two seats left in the federal parliament, and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) with one, remained after the election. It is like the proverbial rats leaving the sinking ship, a question of survival for all of them. After a recent desperate attempt by UMNO to save the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition through getting the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) on board, the MCA is planning to quit as well.

UMNO’s former strongman and now its president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who planned to bring PAS into a new credible opposition coalition, is indicted with 45 charges of graft and corruption, following former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his spendthrift wife Rosmah Mansor. They all have not only lost the election and the trust of the voters but are all moving closer to prison. The intricate, complex and corrupt financial network which provided unlimited campaign funding for their  coalition, needs time to be sorted out by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
On 20 October, Umno veteran Razaleigh Hamzah (in the picture on top) launched a book on “The End of UMNO”, edited by Prof. Bridget Welsh, a prominent and outspoken scholar specializing on Southeast Asian politics. But in an interview she cautioned that so far only the Najib-style corrupt UMNO is dead and that the party could survive with new leaders and younger members. These, though, are turning away according to the media.

Meanwhile, Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the new main ruling party, has its own teething problems. Trying to be the democratic model party in contrast to UMNO’s top down style, PKR is now running its internal leadership election. Its 800,000 members can vote over more than two months, and for the first time in an electronic voting system which does not function without glitches all the time. The stakes are high because party president Anwar Ibrahim is supposed to be Prime Minister within the next two years. Once he well be in office, many government positions will be available for the leaders elected now. So, claims of irregularities, even bribing, have been reported, but also violent clashes between rival supporter groups. Malaysia’s changing party landscape will need some time to cool down and normalize.

Anwar Ibrahim: After 11 Years in Prison on the Way to the Top Job Once Again


After winning the by-election

Partyforumseasia:  Few politicians have gone through more suffering and humiliation than Anwar Ibrahim. After convincingly winning a by-election in Port Dickson on Saturday, 13 October, Anwar is on the way to Malaysia’s premiership he was so close to already 20 years ago. In 1998, as deputy Prime Minister, he fell out with his “boss” Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who sacked him rather unceremoniously, accusing him of corruption and sodomy. At that time, money politics was just starting in big style in the country, and the following sodomy trial was unspeakably tasteless with a mattress being carried into the court room etc. Convicted to nine years in prison, Anwar was freed in 2014 when the supreme court overturned the sodomy conviction. But the bad treatment, a striking symbol of it being Anwar being beaten up in prison and coming to court with a black eye, also triggered massive street protests and calls for reform. It facilitated the formation of a reform party called Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) or People’s Justice Party in 1999. Its success in the general election in 2008 was followed by another controversial sodomy trial and Anwar landed back in prison. After altogether 11 years in jail, the politician is unbroken and ambitious and charismatic as ever. After the May 2018 surprise defeat of the eternally ruling UMNO party, and his former nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad back as Prime Minister at the age of 93, Anwar is now back in parliament and, reconciled with Mahathir who even campaigned for him in the by-election, supposed to succeed him within the next two years. The PKR was led during Anwar’s prison time by his wife Wan Aziza, and survived all attacks under the premiership of Najib Razak, who may well end up in prison himself any time soon. 255px-Parti_Keadilan_Rakyat_logo.svgThe party logo, two white crescents on a blue background, supporters say symbolizes Anwar’s infamous black eye and the eye seeking justice.

Now the biggest party in parliament, the PKR is starting to reap the usual benefits of power. Its membership has nearly doubled to 900,000 compared to the landslide election on May 9th, and very probably the donors are queuing, including the ones who used to fund UMNO before and try now to save their lucrative projects with the government. PKR and Anwar himself are symbols of political perseverance and eventual success, paying a hefty price during their struggling years but also being successful because of severe political mistakes of the Najib government and its rampant corruption. Whether the banned CNRP opposition in Cambodia might be encouraged by the success of PKR is therefore a big open question.

The Miraculous Resurrection of a Prime Minister


A winner’s smile

Partyforumseasia: What Malaysia’s incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak called the “mother of all elections” has turned out to be the end of his political career, unless he follows the winner, Mahathir Mohamad, who resigned in 2003 after 22 years in power and now comes back at the age of 92! If some politicians are worn down by the burden of office and age prematurely, others seem to be rejuvenated by campaigning. Mahathir does not look like a nonogenarian at all, and the crowds he was pulling in his relentless campaign during the last two weeks were already a signal that he might lead the opposition coalition to victory. This victory is certainly a world record.
That it was possible against all the odds and against the predictions of most political pundits  is more than remarkable. The incumbent Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN) had used all possible tricks and means to defend its majority. The latest were a sweeping gerrymandering exercise to make it even more difficult for the opposition, the election on a Wednesday with the expectation of a lower voter turnout, and a cornucopia of election goodies and promises for more after the election. Maybe the visible nervousness of PM Najib and the list of dirty tricks were helping the opposition to tip the scale. The victory is clear, in the national parliament as well as on the federal state level. The official results for the Federal Parliament are as follows:
Tan Sri Mohd Hashim Abdullah, chairman of the Election Commission,  announced at    4.40am on May 10, that BN won only 79 seats, down from 133, and won with only 47% of the popular vote. The Islamist PAS, suspected to be wiped out by many observers, survived with 18 seats. But even if PAS should coalesce with BN, they can’t form a government.  The former opposition coalition PKR has now 109 seats, the Parti Warisan Sabah eight, and with probably some more going to join, the victory is perfect. Mahathir is taking over the premiership again with a promise to hand it over to Anwar Ibrahim after he will be released from prison and pardoned by the king. July will end his prison term anyway which he is serving after a dubious conviction for alleged sodomy.

One of the main reasons for the landslide, called tsunami in the region, is the rising cost of living in a country rich in natural resources, and the all too obvious corruption in the BN system. What most observers had underestimated, but Mahathir managed to remind the voters of, was the dubious role of Najib Razak in the 1MDB scandal and the 682 million US$ in his private accounts. Few voters could believe his explanation that the money was a donation of the Saudi royal family for a wonderful Muslim ally in Southeast Asia. The future of Najib and the BN money cascade will be a very interesting case for follow-up research and comments. If it should help against the rampant political impunity, it will be good for the democratic development in the region.

 

 

False Hope for the Alliance of Hope?


Partyforumseasia: 

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.

The Split of Parti Islam Se-Malysia (PAS)


Partyforumseasia: Founded in November 1951, PAS was itself splitting from the United Malay National Organization UMNO, but allowed dual membership in the beginning. It championed Malay and Muslim rights and the recognition of Islam as state religion which was somewhat contradicting the founding principle of Malaysia as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with full citizenship for the massive Chinese and Indian immigration under the British colonial rule. The contradiction has festered until today and generated a party system along racial lines with UMNO and PAS competing for the Malay Muslim vote, especially in the more conservative rural areas.
The opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat or People’s Alliance consisting of Anwar Ibrahim‘s racially open Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), PAS and the Chinese dominated DAP seemed to blur the ideological divisions until PAS president Abdul Hadi‘s push to introduce Hudud (Muslim penal code regulations) in Kelantan exposed the internal fault lines in PAS and triggered the break-up of the Pakatan Rakyat.
But not all PAS members are following the hard-line Muslim clerics under Hadi Awang, the so called “ulama” faction. A minority formed the “Erdogan” faction, when the Turkish president was still considered a moderate Muslim leader, but lost all leadership posts in internal party elections earlier this year.
Splitting from PAS in big numbers now, the moderates have founded a new party under the name of “Parti Amanah Negara” (in short “Amanah” = trust or fulfilling one’s obligations in Arabic). Mat Sabu
The new party’s president Mohamad Sabu aka Mat Sabu was a deputy president of PAS since 2011 and moderate challenger of the clerical hardliners. In a statement during the launching of the party he said the new political platform is committed to continue the legacy of political Islam, but realizing that Malaysia is a country of people from diverse social and religious backgrounds, Amanah interprets Islam in a more holistic and inclusive manner. In an era of increasing Arab influence in the country a shift to moderate and more open alternatives should be welcome.

Amanah was officially launched on 17 September
with thousands of supporters attending and claiming that more than 30,000 members are  already joining, including non-Muslims and over a hundred lawyers.

With DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang also attending the meeting it is clear that the new party is most welcome to replace PAS in the opposition coalition. Amanah, though, states its openness to co-operate with PAS, but president Hadi Awang as leader of the hardliners has immediately excluded any truce with the “traitors”. Nevertheless, discussions on the rejuvenation of the opposition coalition as “Pakatan Rakyat 2.0” are underway with PKR and DAP, because without the massive remaining membership potential of the old PAS there is no chance of ousting UMNO and its coalition partners from their entrenched power position, despite the extreme pressure on prime minister and UMNO-leader Najib Razak with the embarrassing 1MDB financial scandal.

If the break-up of the opposition looked like a timely relief and victory for the government, it is matched by the slow erosion of the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional by the marginalization of smaller component parties which were  kept alive by massive financial support from UMNO  anyway.

Malaysia needs urgently strong and united leadership to get out of the crisis. Unfortunately, the ruling and government coalitions look equally weakened.

For a better understanding of party politics in Malaysia see Kartini Aboo Talib‘s country paper (available at Amazon) in:
Amazon Party Politics SEA

Malaysia: Politics for God, for the People, or for the Party?


Partyforumseasia: During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Christian Democrats have been strong in several Western European countries. With over 40% they are still the dominant force in Germany, though the Christian element (the “C”) in its name does not play a big role in practical politics because under a secular constitution religion is considered to be private.
Hadi 2PAS president Hadi Awang has some reason for concern

In predominantly Muslim countries like Malaysia religion plays a bigger role, and at least for the Friday prayers mosque attendance is much more subject to peer-group control, in rural communities more than in bigger cities. Religious credentials are important factors for political careers and open support for Islam is a must for Malay candidates in election campaigns. The competition for Malay Muslim votes between two big mainstream parties, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) has triggered even more importance on religious issues for a couple of decades. Both are targeting the same Malay constituencies, especially in the rural areas, because of the relatively small number of voters per precinct and the better chances to get elected.
With the “holier than thou”- competition the nation has changed from a more relaxed religious atmosphere only two or three decades ago to much more peer-group pressure on the Muslims with elements spilling over to the minority religions. Restaurants have to be halal, alcohol is no longer flowing so freely, and gender relations are getting more difficult. The world-wide Muslim resurgence including fundamentalist currents are finding a lot of open doors in the country.
In the last few months, but festering for much longer in the background, the introduction of Muslim criminal law elements (or hudud), especially corporal punishment, has highlighted the fault lines in Malaysia’s society, though the constitution is giving equal rights to the strong minorities and their religions, and the British-inherited legal system is basically secular.
The PAS-controlled federal state of Kelantan has passed a law on the implementation of HUDUD in the local parliament on 18 March, and UMNO had no choice but to support the motion. For its final implementation the law needs approval from the national parliament, and many politicians and lawyers think it is unconstitutional.
Though the requirements for male (!) witnesses are high, the punishments are harsh in the 21st century. For theft (2 witnesses) a hand or both have to be amputated. For extramarital sex (4 witnesses!!!??) it is 100 lashes for unmarried and stoning to death for married persons. Drinking of intoxication substances (2 witnesses) costs 40 to 80 lashes. If this sounds archaic for modern Muslims already, the reaction of non-Muslims is also strong, though hudud is supposed to apply only to Muslims. In a multi-religious society like the Malaysian there a many mixed families and many non-Muslims can be affected.

Strategy-wise:   In this complex situation there a rather different outcomes for the Malaysian political parties:

1. PAS is proud of higher religious standards than UMNO anyway. Stating it again is not providing much additional mileage. But they have a leadership problem after their spiritual leader Nik Aziz passed away. Party chairman Hadi Awang, also a Muslim scholar, is not uncontested internally. His dogmatic attitude and his alleged openness for cooperation with UMNO are criticized by the so called “Erdogan faction”. Hadi is heading the more conservative “ulama faction” and may face a grassroots revolt. More than half of the party’s committee in its Batu branch has resigned in protest a few days ago.

2. UMNO has been leading a coalition of 18 parties, maximizing its votes with the help of the Chinese, Indian and indigenous ethnic component parties. These allies are against the hudud implementation, though they know that UMNO cannot be seen to be against it in the Malay constituencies in more conservative rural areas on whose support UMNO’s survival depends. But the threat of being voted out is only there as long as the opposition coalition is united and strong. Its leader Anwar Ibrahim neutralized in prison for the next five years, dividing the opposition and maybe even splitting PAS would mean practically ending the threat. But strategies often backfire, and the hudud dilemma could add to the pressure on Prime Minister Najib by Dr. Mahathir and his friends.

3. Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition composed of PAS, Chinese dominated DAP, and Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, is actually close to breaking up. All non-Muslim members are against hudud and have suspected PAS of secretly dealing with UMNO for quite some time already. With Anwar in prison the “coalition of strange bedfellows”, united only by its fight against the government, is more unstable than ever.

4. The greater public: Non-Muslims anyway, but also Muslims with doubts about the more than creeping religious intolerance in the country are not fully convinced that the hudud policies are only religiously motivated. Leadership struggles in PAS and UMNO make it rather obvious that the hudud drive is not totally for God or the people but all too visibly party politics. Like in countries like Iran, where the clerics in power are detrimental to the acceptance of Islam, the turmoil created by PAS may turn out to be negative for the political development and the religion alike.

5. The social climate: A presenter at business radio station BFM 89.9 who discussed the question whether the hudud implementation would help to fill the country’s rice bowls in a video published on YouTube received death and rape threats and is under police investigation. She has apologized publicly saying that she regretted her tone and demeanor in the video and that she would never mock or insult any religion, let alone her own. The incident shows the raw nerves in the domestic debate and cast doubts on Malaysia’s  image as a moderate Muslim country.

Malaysia: A Lady’s Gambit against Desperate Ruling Coalition


Partyforumseasia: In 2012, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim had been acquitted of a rather dubious sodomy indictment. Just two weeks before probably winning a Azizahby-election (scheduled for March 23) enabling him to eventually become chief minister of Selangor, last Friday, March 8, a court of appeal reverses the acquittal and sentences him to five years in jail. A more desperate move of preventing Anwar from being elected is difficult to imagine, since the shooting of political rivals, fortunately, is out of fashion in this part of Asia. Unless the court can prove that the coincidence of by-election and new conviction is based on correct legal procedures and internal court timing , the public can only see it as a desperate move of the BN-Government to politically kill Anwar off with the help of a judiciary widely seen as pliant.
The opposition coalition PKR’s strategic director Rafizi Ramli is said to be the mastermind of fielding Anwar Ibrahim in the Kajang by-election and create an even stronger power base in Selangor.  The government’s reaction is proving this by-election strategy right and dangerous for them. Obviously they are so frightened that they use the old sodomy weapon again, and against growing public disgust.
The opposition’s reaction to the appeal court intervention comes swift and smart. Instead of Anwar they will nominate tomorrow, 11 March, his wife Dr. Wan Azizah who is also president of the People’s Justice Party, PKR.
Partyforumseasia has argued already in 2013 that the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition cannot afford to lose because of the tens of thousands of party cronies and the billions at stake. Hard ball and money politics once again show their resilience in Southeast Asia.