Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Malaysia: Opposition collapse offers new risks, opportunities

Malaysia: Opposition collapse offers new risks, opportunities

Only days after the somewhat inevitable dissolution of the opposition alliance in Malaysia, the disparate parties are jostling to create new partnerships.

For better or worse, the breakup of the People's Alliance or Pakatan Rayat is opening the door to new political opportunities. What deals are struck will have important ramifications for embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak's political future, but also for the cohesion of multi-ethnic Malaysia.

Jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim after Malaysia's 2013 general election. (Flickr/Firdaus Latif.)

The People's Alliance was always an informal coalition and had its roots in the 2008 general election. In 2008, the opposition, led by Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail , the wife of Anwar Ibrahim, won a symbolic victory in which the Barisan Nasional party was denied a two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since 1957. The People's Alliance also increased its support in the 2013 election, garnering 53% of the vote, though only taking 89 parliamentary seats out of a possible 222. 

The People's Alliance consisted of three main political parties: the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the People's Justice Party (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). PAS has a strong Islamist policy platform, PKR is a centrist multi-ethnic party and DAP is largely supported by ethnic Chinese. The three groups had little in common other than a desire to dislodge the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition that has been in power since independence from Britain in 1957. Imprisoned PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim was the only potential prime ministerial candidate they could agree on.

The People Alliance was the fourth opposition alliance to collapse since independence. It was perhaps inevitable that the Islamists fell out with their moderate partners, who could no longer tolerate the push for hudud, or Islamic criminal law, in parts of Malaysia. [fold]

However, it's worth remembering that the clash between Islamist and secular ideologies is not new to Malaysian politics. And there had been other fractures in the alliance, such as disagreements over the leadership of states within their control. In the scramble for greater power and influence, the disappointing election result in 2013 (in terms of seats won, not percentage of the vote) added further strain to the bonds that had held the groups together. It is doubtful whether the coalition would have survived even with Anwar Ibrahim at the helm.

While Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling UMNO party got a brief boost from the breakdown of the opposition, it's a political high that is unlikely to last. Plagued by increasing scrutiny of the heavily indebted wealth fund of which Najib is the chair, a sluggish economy further troubled by the fall in global oil prices, and the increased state-sanctioned repression of opposition politicians and journalists, Najib Razak is a leader facing mounting political challenges

It is difficult to predict the outcome of the current political free-fall. There are a multitude of possible permutations and a great many shifting alliances.

UMNO is increasingly being rejected by voters who are fed up with corruption and authoritarianism. It is this growing pressure that offers the potential for further political gains by opposition parties, and even the potential for leaders to form a new opposition alliance for the next general election in 2018.

But another real possibility is the further fracturing of the opposition, plunging Malaysia into a political realm in which nationalists and religious hardliners unite in one opposition alliance while political moderates form a separate opposition group. Not only would it be far less likely that either of these groups could pose a real threat to the ruling coalition, such political organisation around ethnic and religious lines could pose serious problems for the future of social cohesion and inclusive political life of Malaysia.

For now, the talking continues. Whatever form a new opposition politics takes in Malaysia, it will set the tone for the 2018 general election.

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