Malaysia: Hopelessly Divided


Dr James Chin

Malaysia is in election mode these days and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) is supremely confident that it will do well when elections are called sometime in the next six months. The BN election machinery in all the states is up and running and about one-third of the states have finalised their candidates for the coming election. Consistent with the change in national leadership from Mahathir to Badawi, at least twenty per cent of the BN candidates will be 'new blood'. For the past two months, election rallies thinly disguised as farewell events for Mahathir have been held in all 13 states with thousands of people turning out to hear of the virtues of political continuity and economic prosperity under the BN.

The BN has every reason to be confident; after all, unlike the last general election in 1999, this time around the opposition is not only split, but hopelessly divided within as well. The three main opposition parties (in terms of electoral impact) are: Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Peoples' Justice Party) (PKR) (consisting of the Anwar-inspired Parti Keadilan Nasional and the socialist Parti Rakyat Malaysia).

Although it is a certainty that just ahead of the election all three will come together and form a loose Barisan Alternatif (BA, Alternative Front in contrast to the National Front) to ensure a one-to-one contest against the BN, the public insults and acrimonious talk leading to the loose alliance will ensure that there will not be any genuine cooperation among the three.

Just last month, both the DAP and PKR went to the press accusing each other of intransigence over non-Malay constituencies. In an extraordinary public outburst, PKR accused DAP of ‘racial politics’ when the later insisted that it be given preference in all Chinese-majority constituencies. Meanwhile PKR and PAS are at loggerheads over mixed-urban Malay constituencies. PKR claims this to be its base while PAS is keen to expand into urban areas. The DAP refuses to talk directly to PAS until the later abandons its ‘Islamic state’ agenda. Both DAP and PKR oppose an ‘Islamic state’ platform and are looking into the idea of issuing different manifestos.

On top of this, the powerful Registrar of Societies (ROS), has refused PKR permission to use the word ‘Keadilan’, claiming that it would confuse the voters with the old Parti Keadilan Nasional. If this issue is not resolved before nomination day, then PKR will not be able go into the general election using its new name.

Meanwhile things are anything but rosy within the individual parties.

On paper, PAS looks strong but in reality, the party is split between the professionals and the ulama (religious scholars) and the moderates and the radicals. Since the death of party leader, Fadzil Noor, the party has shifted significantly towards a more radical Islamic position under Fadzil's successor, Abdul Hadi Awang. His claim to fame in recent weeks has been his alleged statement of support for suicide bombings made just days after the second anniversary of Sept 11. In the party election for the deputy presidency of PAS, the ulama candidate beat a professional, reaffirming the party's 'Leadership by Ulamak' policy. This contest was highly significant given that the post had not been contested for the past two decades. Normally, the candidate has been chosen by consensus.

The DAP ‘lost face’ when the post of official parliamentary opposition leader was taken by PAS after the 1999 general election. Prior to this, the DAP's Lim Kit Siang had held the post for more than two decades. Since then the DAP has failed to significantly add new blood to its leadership. Despite pledges by the old guard that they would give way, in practice this has not happened. At the state level there are deep problems as well. In Selangor state, its only state assemblyman, Teng Chang Khim, was not even included in the Selangor Committee headed by Ronnie Liu. A senior Indian member also refused to serve under Liu. In Melaka state, there are two rival factions: one headed by the state party chief Sim Tong Hin and the other by Lim Guan Eng, widely tipped to be the future party leader.

Splits in the PKR are even more serious. The merger between PKN and PRM has meant the dislocation of leaders from both parties. Some missed out on leadership positions in the new merged entity. Indian members are especially upset, alleging that they were being marginalized in the new PKR. Some former PRM members are also unhappy that the PKR appears to have had the upper hand in the merger resulting in many of ‘Anwar's boys’ taking over the direction of PKR. They think that the party should move beyond the Anwar issue. Anwar is still officially the main ‘advisor’ to the PKR. There is also unhappiness over the performance of Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar's wife, as leader. Her critics claim that she is weak and indecisive. Further, the PKR youth wing is split with several youth leaders resigning over the issue of allowing women to join PKR Youth.

WATCHPOINT: Will the voters accept (i) a loose opposition alliance, and ii) divided opposition parties?


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