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Thursday, June 09, 2005

The EIU ViewsWire

The EIU ViewsWireMalaysia politics: A more coherent opposition?



Malaysia's political balance appears set to shift following the election of moderates to senior posts in an Islamist opposition party, and following signs that the reformist former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, could accept an offer to spearhead a coalition against the government. A united pro-reform opposition could increase the difficulties for the prime minister, Abdullah Badawi. But unity will be hard to achieve, and there is little threat to the dominance of Mr Abdullah's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition—though his own position within it could be weakened.

In party elections on June 5th, the Islamic opposition party, Parti Islam sa-Malaysia (PAS), elevated relatively liberal candidates to top positions within its leadership, including the deputy presidency and three vice-presidential slots. Among those elected was Nasharuddin Mat Isa, 42, a Western-educated politician with known sympathies for the reformist movement once spearheaded by Mr Anwar. He becomes party deputy president.

Changing of the guard

The party's conservative but pragmatic president, Abdul Hadi Awang, kept his position unopposed. But otherwise the election results may signal a shifting of momentum towards the party's younger, moderate elements. This sets the stage for a struggle between progressive and conservative factions. If the moderates prevail, the party's hardline religious stance could soften. That stance, which includes calls for the establishment of an Islamic state, has alienated moderate Muslim voters as well as opposition parties that might otherwise be allies.

With a more progressive leadership, PAS could be in a stronger position to rally supporters of political reform from all parties, and to use the issue of reform—in particular, the fight against corruption—to weaken the ruling BN coalition. Such intentions may also be evident in the overtures PAS has made to the former deputy prime minister. Mr Anwar was jailed in 1999 on corruption (and later sodomy) charges after clashing with Mr Abdullah's predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, and was only released from prison last year. On June 7th Mr Anwar was reported to have indicated that he welcomed an invitation by PAS to be the unofficial leader of a pro-reform opposition alliance. (Mr Anwar's corruption conviction prevents him from formally re-entering politics until 2008.) It remains unclear whether Mr Anwar has actually accepted the offer or merely indicated he is open to the idea. But clearly he is becoming more politically prominent again—a development with implications both for the ruling and opposition forces.

The ultimate champion of reform?

Mr Anwar's greatest assets to the opposition include his status as a figurehead for political protest. His imprisonment from 1999 to 2004 was widely regarded as politically motivated, and thus galvanised the reform movement in the country. Mr Anwar also has the potential to act as a bridge between different political groups. He has strong enough Islamic credentials, dating back to his early political career, to be acceptable to some PAS members. Yet he is also seen as reassuringly modern by some of the non-Islamic opposition parties, such as the mainly ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP). The DAP opposes PAS's plans for an Islamic state, and relations between the two parties have been strained over the issue. Also, of course, Mr Anwar's status as a former stalwart of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), now headed by the prime minister, could enable the opposition to mobilise some rump support from within the ruling coalition's dominant party.

If Mr Anwar were to become the de facto front man for a united opposition, it would add to the worries facing Mr Abdullah. Although the prime minister oversaw a crushing victory for the BN in the March 2004 parliamentary election, he has failed to capitalise on the result. His administration's perceived squandering of the opportunity provided by its strong election mandate to combat corruption, combined with economic policy blunders such as an ill-conceived crackdown on illegal foreign workers, has led to growing dissatisfaction with the prime minister. Internal elections at UMNO's congress in September 2004 weakened Mr Abdullah's position within his party, and the chances of an internal challenge to his leadership appear to be rising. If an Anwar-led opposition campaign gained momentum, this would increase the nervousness within UMNO and could accelerate any move within the party to oust Mr Abdullah.

Major challenges face the opposition

It is nonetheless premature to see in these developments a serious threat to the ruling coalition. Most of the opposition parties were severely weakened in the last general election. The worst affected were PAS itself and, notably, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (often referred to as Keadilan) led by none other than Mr Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. Although PAS appears hopeful Mr Anwar can attract supporters over from UMNO, it would take a defection of monumental proportions to undermine seriously UMNO's power base at the centre.

Moreover, it is far from certain that PAS will be able to achieve the multi-party unity it now purports to seek. The immediate challenge will be to resolve its own internal tensions, but the rise of the party's progressive faction could now lead to a showdown between conservatives and moderates that could paralyse the party and, ironically, make it less able to mount an effective challenge to UMNO. Although PAS moderates appear to be gaining the upper hand, the leadership will still have to defer to the party's supreme council of conservative appointees.

PAS's ability to convince other parties, such as the DAP, that it can and will relax its hardline Islamist agenda is also suspect. Although the DAP supports the idea of Mr Anwar heading an opposition alliance, any signs PAS is once again hardening its religious stance could rapidly end any DAP co-operation. Despite Mr Anwar's reform credentials, some within the opposition parties also may mistrust the former deputy prime minister because of his background in UMNO.

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