The Malaysian opposition needs a leader. And fast. With talk of a general election on the horizon several candidates are jostling for precedence – none of them a sure bet.
By Oliver Ward, edited by Holly Reeves
There is a gaping hole at the head of Malaysian politics. Rumours of a general election continue but in the storm of failed coalitions and public infighting the opposition ship has no captain to take on Prime Minister Najib.
The next election is due by 2018 at the latest and will be fought along economic and ethnic lines as candidates battle to win over middle-class voters. Employment and how to stabilise the ringgit will need to be addressed as well as each group’s position on the controversial hudud bill on implementing Sharia law. Education policy, improving national schools, and introducing history into the national curriculum could also prove decisive.
This means any viable candidate will need to hold together a diverse coalition which manages the tempers and priorities of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Mahathir’s newly-formed Bersatu (PPBM) party. But is there anyone popular enough to defeat Najib?
Without an electoral pact, the opposition will split the vote
Only an electoral pact can break Najib’s hold on government. This is because PKR and DAP know that the big-hitters like Muhyiddin Yassin are crucial to attracting political support. Without joining with the PPBM, the DAP and PKR will be in a fight on three fronts, to the benefit of the incumbent United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
Faisal Hazis from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia explains, “PPBM is targeting UMNO-Malay votes and that is the kind of votes that Pakatan needs to secure a big win in the next general election”. Unless PPBM can solve their internal problems it is unlikely they will be able to gain enough support to win a general election outright. Najib will be watching the parties carefully, but who should he be watching closest of all?
1. Anwar Ibrahim
Anwar Ibrahim was once Najib’s biggest threat. He was at the helm of the opposition coalition in 2013 which targeted Najib’s corruption and nepotism and gained the opposition their most electoral gains to date. He was imprisoned on sodomy charges in 2015 and recently lost his final appeal against his sentence. He will serve 16 further months in prison and spend this coming election behind bars.
2. Mahathir Mohamad
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is eying up a role leading the coalition as head of the Bersatu party. However, he does not enjoy the same popularity he did in office, and support for opposition parties in general seems to be dropping since he reentered politics. Fewer people are attending political rallies, and the public remembers his time in government as riddled with extensive nepotism and judicial irregularities.
He would not be able to win a general election with his name on the ticket and the PKR and DAP are having internal disagreements about how to even approach him. If he was head of the coalition, there would be a large backlash from the other parties. A political comeback as leader of the country looks impossible.
3. Muhyiddin Yassin
President of the PPBM, Muhyiddin Yassin, has the political experience and charisma to draw vital support. And, if he offers amnesty and incentives, he is the only candidate with enough power to persuade some heavy hitters to join the opposition. Muhyiddin himself is confident, stating that “the party faces declining support and many are not even sure whether UMNO can survive the next elections.”
However, his reputation is suffering after crippling allegations of his involvement in an illicit sexual liaison, then party infighting has led to the former senator, Mohamad Ezam Mohd Nor, leaving and Anina Saadudin being removed. These high-profile hiccups demonstrate the divisions in Bersatu that Yassin needs to carefully manage to stand a chance at winning an election. Najib may not give him enough time to do that.
4. Mukhriz Mahathir
Mahathir Mohamad’s son Mukhriz had his path to leading the opposition forged by his father. He sits as the only alternative when Anwar is in prison and Muhyiddin is potentially deemed unfit for leadership due to his affair. Despite this, the younger statesman would not get bipartisan support from the other opposition parties and the PKR is unlikely to accept a leader from Bersatu. After all, Mukhriz’s father had their popular leader, Anwar, imprisoned.
5. Abdul Hadi Awang
The President of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), Abdul Hadi Awang, is another flawed option. His major party realignment has brought PAS much closer to Najib, publicly sharing a stage with him at a rally to raise awareness of the plight of the Muslim Rohingya. In return, Najib pledged his personal support for the PAS hudud bill. This show of unity makes it impossible for the other opposition parties to back a PAS leader so close to the current Prime Minister. It may even be difficult for the party to consider entering another opposition coalition at all.
6. Wan Azizah
Wan Azizah could be a long-shot candidate for the opposition leader. However, her turn as head of her party failed to generate anywhere near the same level of unity established by her husband, and she has overseen very public rifts between Rafizi and Azmin. She admits this saying “We have to face reality and correct whatever weaknesses we have, and listen to criticism thrown our way.”
She needs to get affairs in her party straightened out so has little chance of managing the complex negotiation required to form an opposition. Her chances at electoral success are slim.
The timing of the election is crucial
The timing of the election could make all the difference. The opposition is disorganised and their leadership vacuum needs solving urgently. Asked about who would run for prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad said, “Let us leave that question alone for now.” If Najib calls an early election in 2017 the opposition is unprepared and plagued with infighting.
Former Deputy Prime Minister, Musa Hitam has said UNMO and its governing coalition should “strike while the iron is hot”. The pressure is on. Muhyiddin needs to get his house in order. Mahathir needs to get his reputation out of the dirt. Najib needs to realise that if he allows the opposition to rally, he will find himself in a much harder political battle.