Divisions are never far below the surface in Malaysia's complex political alliances

Next month's election in a deeply conservative country will be contested by fragile coalitions, writes Sholto Byrnes

REFILE - REMOVING RESTRICTIONS  People walk next to a flag of the ruling party, National Front, in Putrajaya, Malaysia April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
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Elections in Malaysia often provoke disproportionate interest for a country of just over 30 million. This time, though, the polls due on May 9 have aroused particular focus because they will pit the incumbent prime minister Najib Tun Razak against his predecessor but one, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who not only owes his political career to Mr Najib's father (Malaysia's second premier) but was also the country's leader for 22 years until 2003. He would also be the world's oldest prime minister if he won at the age of 92, having jumped ship and become the opposition's candidate for PM.

Western analysis of Malaysian politics has long been over-simplistic. The decades-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is considered to be conservative, overly attentive to special interests and – especially during Dr Mahathir's period in office – marked by a strong authoritarian streak.

The opposition, by contrast, are painted as liberal reformers, particularly since the 1998 sacking and subsequent jailing of Dr Mahathir's then deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, after which Anwar became the opposition's leader and, to boosters like the noted neo-con Paul Wolfowitz, a human rights icon.

The truth is more complex. The BN is a coalition of race-based parties led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Since all parties on both sides are more or less dependent on a particular ethnic vote, the BN has practised a more communal, communitarian and less liberal politics than western critics might like but it is one that the Malaysian people have consistently voted for nevertheless.

That aside, as BN leader and in office since 2009, Mr Najib has a track record on which he can be judged – and he would like Malaysians to do so. He points to the creation of 2.7 million jobs, growth of nearly 6 per cent last year, the near-elimination of poverty and a host of other statistics which explain why the World Bank and the IMF issue such glowing reports every time they visit the country.

Voters and international investors know what they will get if the BN are returned – the kind of pro-business policies that led Air Asia’s Tony Fernandes to dub Mr Najib “the father of low-cost travel”; an emphasis on innovation and female empowerment; a strong relationship with China and an outward-facing foreign policy and a determination to counter radicalisation and terrorism that India’s Narendra Modi has described as “an inspiration for the entire region”.

What can be expected if the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH, or Alliance of Hope) win is unclear as they have never won a general election, although their predecessor Pakatan Rakyat (PR, the People’s Alliance), has governed the wealthy states of Selangor and Penang reasonably competently since 2008.

Anwar was leader of PR until very recently (even though he has been in prison for sodomy since February 2015) and managed to project a moderate, modern image to international observers willing to overlook his past as an Islamist leader and his long-term associations with the likes of Yusuf Al Qaradawi and Tariq Ramadan (the latter frequently accused, as was Anwar, of presenting one face to western audiences and another more radical one to non-western ones).

The trouble, however, was never far below the surface. The alliance contained Anwar’s Malay-dominated PKR (People’s Justice Party), the leftist Chinese DAP (Democratic Action Party) and the Islamist PAS. They each had their own appeals but all had very different and contradictory visions for Malaysia. As the left-wing columnist and author Martin Jacques put it, this was “a combination of incongruous, incoherent and uneasy bedfellows. The opposition’s credibility is seriously flawed”.

Eventually the DAP broke up the coalition in opposition to PAS’s desire to strengthen sharia. A new party, Amanah, splintered from PAS and joined PKR and the DAP. Then Dr Mahathir, who had been trying to eject Mr Najib from the premiership for several years (long before anyone had heard of 1MDB), crossed to the opposition and founded a new party. Contrary to the much-touted multiracialism of the opposition, however, Dr Mahathir’s new vehicle was for Malays only.

So the new coalition contains Malay supremacists, Chinese progressives, moderate Islamists, Indian socialists, as well as a contingent of disaffected ex-UMNO politicians. The incongruity and incoherence remain.

There are idealistic and impressive politicians in PH. But overall, their talk of reforming institutions rings hollow when PH is now led by Dr Mahathir, the man whom the opposition accused of undermining them in the first place. Economists have widely derided their manifesto, with a subsidiary of Fitch saying “all of its promises” were “populist”, detrimental for the country and “could strain ties with China”.

And above all, there is the fact that many of Dr Mahathir’s new allies were imprisoned under his rule. Both he and his fellow leaders have a very long history of calling each other racists, accusing each other of enriching their cronies and of vehemently opposing each others’ policies.

Less than five years ago, the DAP’s Lim Kit Siang was writing “Mahathir wants me dead”, accusing him of “gutter-politics of the most despicable and immoral kind”. Three years later, Dr Mahathir was complaining of Anwar’s “immoral behaviour” and said that at 68, Anwar was too old to become prime minister.

Now the three are apparently the best of friends and will secure Anwar a royal pardon should PH win so that he can take over the top job from a 92-year-old.

Opinion polling is sparse in Malaysia and the next election is further complicated by the fact that PAS is putting up candidates in more than half the constituencies, turning these polls into an unpredictable three-way contest. But if it is true that “oppositions don’t win elections – governments lose them”, it is quite possible that Malaysia’s forthcoming vote might prove the opposite. Not for nothing did one sympathetic commentator once label Malaysia’s opposition “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight” – and their aim is not looking any more accurate this time.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia