By Nigel Cory
Malaysia’s opposition People’s Alliance coalition has been put to the test this year. Prominent members have been charged with sedition in a surge of cases against government opponents and academics. It has lost every 2014 by-election in which it has faced the governing National Front coalition. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is facing jail for sodomy in what many domestic and foreign observers view as a politically motivated case. And a bitter public fight over the appointment of a new chief minister in opposition-governed Selangor, Malaysia’s wealthiest state, nearly splintered the coalition.
Despite these challenges the People’s Alliance has survived—a testament to its resilience. The opposition will need more of the same to overcome future challenges if it wants to continue its progress toward winning national power.
The three-party opposition coalition has had to fight for unity since its founding in 2008. Widely differing ideologies between the predominately Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), the mainly Malay and religiously conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and the multi-ethnic People’s Justice Party (PKR), has regularly led to internal squabbling.
But it was not until the months-long disagreement over the appointment of Selangor’s chief minister that these differences nearly unraveled the coalition. The People’s Alliance’s mishandling of the dispute raised doubts in the public’s mind about the coalition’s unity and its ability to govern. PKR and DAP wanted the incumbent chief minister replaced with PKR president, and Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.
PAS first objected to the ouster of the incumbent, also a member of PKR, and then broke ranks with its coalition partners by acceding to the sultan of Selangor’s constitutionally questionable demand for three nominees from which to choose rather than just Wan Azizah. The interventionist sultan, who is officially neutral but widely seen as favorable to the government, selected one of those other nominees, PKR deputy president Azmin Ali.
The handling of Selangor is crucial for the opposition. It shows the public a positive alternative to the National Front government and proves that the People’s Alliance can be trusted with power. The alliance already has opposition politics down to a fine art, but that is unlikely to be enough to improve on its near-victory in 2013 national elections. The opposition won 50.8 percent of the popular vote in that contest, but just 40 percent of seats in parliament thanks to Malaysia’s highly gerrymandered electoral map. That built on its 2008 showing of 46.7 percent of the vote. But that trend of improvement over two election cycles can’t be taken for granted, especially amid the pressure—both fair and unfair—being placed on the opposition by the National Front and its supporters.
That the People’s Alliance survived the Selangor incident intact is a good sign. Those members who considered breaking away from the coalition, especially within PAS, have largely gone silent as party leaders have moved on, offered support for the new chief minister, and shifted focus to issues of shared interest such as opposing the sedition cases, the removal of fuel subsidies, and the government’s 2015 budget. But the episode exposed cracks and the government now sees the opposition as fragile.
The People’s Alliance will need to show greater unity amid the numerous challenges ahead. The authorities continue to bring sedition charges against opposition politicians which could lead to fresh by-elections. A court is set to rule on Anwar’s final appeal against his sodomy conviction on October 28-29. The prospect of losing its leader has loomed over the opposition for years. Anwar is widely seen as the glue holding the disparate parties together. The coalition’s lack of organizational depth heightens the danger that it could fracture if he is imprisoned. But if Anwar is jailed (again), it could lead to an upswing in support for the opposition by making him a martyr (again) in the eyes of many voters.
Malaysia’s standing as a democratic country is already being questioned at home and abroad in light of the surge in sedition cases. It could be brought into further disrepute if Anwar is jailed. Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is well aware of the negative implications, seems unwilling to cross the right-wing members within his ruling party who have seized greater prominence following the National Front’s near-loss in 2013. This means that the opposition, already battered by the sedition charges and the Selangor crisis, faces even greater challenges in the future. Whether it will break under the strain remains to be seen.