Malaysia needs an opposition, but is Mahathir the answer?

Photo: Udey Ismail/CC BY 2.0

By Holly Reeves

The latest twist in the tale of Najib v Mahathir is one of the boldest yet. The former strongman has announced the formation of a new political party which will ally with other opposition groups to bring down Barisan Nasional (BN), and Najib, in the next election. But is this a strike for honesty in government, or just another tussle in the personal fight between the two men who claim to speak for Malaysia?

Mahathir says he will be a founding member of the group, taking a role as, “first among equals,” as it works in partnership with Pakatan Harapan to maximise opposition support in future general elections. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the current president of the National Justice Party (PKR) remains in command.

Also joining the campaign to raise awareness on the inadequacies of the current government, though not currently joining the party itself, is former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Despite popular support for him as a prime minister in waiting he says he is not keen for the job.

Speaking about Azizah, Yassin explained to the press, “She is the opposition leader. There is no doubts on that.” He continued, “Working together is more important than being a member of any political party and this is what our focus should be.”

The politics of process

However, there are early concerns about the success of a new coalition. Ben Suffian, from the polling centre Merdeka, said even the formation of Mahathir’s party itself was uncertain. Making it to the ballot would require the ­approval of the current Home Minister, he explains. It is unlikely to be a popular proposition.

The risk of this new player could be considerable for BN, especially as they would target the same core voters and perhaps inspire the disparate opposition voters who came so close to giving them a black eye in the last elections. But they are not the only ones with that would face challenges, says Suffian, it would be the opposition parties themselves.

“For the opposition this means giving up seats they have been contesting for decades and were on the verge of winning last election,” he said. Not only is there the issue of just how seat allocations would work, but, “the key is not down to the new party but who can strike the better deal with Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).”

Is Malaysia ready?

The other question to consider is whether the country is ready for a seismic shift in its political structures. The huge wins of BN in the recent Sarawak elections, and later by-elections, suggest that people are disillusioned with the ideas of the Pakatan Harapan coalition on the left but the newly-formed Gabungan Rakyat SakSaMa (SakSaMa) coalition has not attracted support.

“I don’t think they will win any seats at all in this upcoming general elections,” explains Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “In this country, you either have to have a lot of resources or money or you have to have a lot of charisma in order to be successful in politics,” he believes Saksama has neither.

However, a party involving Mahathir could never be said to be short of personality. The challenges instead are to come up with a common party platform. How will they approach the question of support for an Islamic state? What about meritocracy? And just who would partner with Mahathir when so many have spoken against him in the past.

And among the personalities likely to be attracted to this type of anti-UNMO force, how is power to be divided? If the coalition receives the green light from the Home Minister a quick announcement on a Cabinet must follow in order to appear as a government in waiting. If the experience of previous coalitions is a measure then this may, in itself, be as difficult as bringing down Najib.

Popular support

The final, and most important, challenge for any group seeking to emerge as a new and revitalised opposition is to bring the people onside. Yassin is kickstarting this process with a nationwide roadshow to explain the issues behind the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) controversy.

“In today’s situation, if we do not spread the information to regular people, of their power to determine the future, and just allow this issue to carry on, then our worry is that the country will be ruined,” he said. “I think if the 1MDB issue is not given a proper explanation in simpler language, then the people will never know the impact it has on the country.”

And so, as with much in Malaysian politics in the last 12 months, we return to the impact of 1MDB. The detrimental effect of the scandal continues to erode the country’s reputation internationally, but in an unforeseen upside it might just be enough to unite an alternative to the administration that created it.