Malaysia Opposition Rift Widens Amid Power Melee: Southeast Asia

Malaysia’s opposition alliance, wracked by months of infighting, is falling apart in the state of Selangor it controls, as leader Anwar Ibrahim struggles to restore unity before his potential jail term.

The three parties in the Pakatan Rakyat coalition disagree on who should be chief minister of Selangor, the nation’s biggest state by gross domestic product and home to Kuala Lumpur. The future of the bloc may hinge on the decision of one of the partners this weekend whether to support the other two parties on Selangor’s leadership.

Pakatan Rakyat is a disparate group bound by little more than the aim of unseating the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose Barisan Nasional coalition has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957. At stake for Anwar, who has led the opposition unsuccessfully in two national elections, is ensuring his alliance remains together should his appeal of a five-year jail term for sodomy fail.

“There’s definitely a risk” of the alliance collapsing, said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. “This is not just a Selangor issue. It has very quickly become a national issue, and unfortunately that means Pakatan Rakyat as a coalition has become significantly weakened.”

At the center of the controversy is Selangor Chief Minister Khalid Ibrahim. Anwar is seeking to install his wife to replace Khalid, a move backed by their People’s Justice Party and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party. Parti Islam SeMalaysia, or PAS, wants Khalid to stay, citing his performance in the state.

Ouster, Retaliation

The People’s Justice Party removed Khalid from its ranks Aug. 9, prompting him to seek support from Selangor’s sultan, the head of state. After receiving it, Khalid retaliated by firing five of six executive council members from the People’s Justice Party and the Democratic Action Party that run the state government, while leaving four from PAS in their positions.

A central committee member of PAS was reported by the Malaysiakini news website on July 28 to have suggested a tie-up with Najib’s United Malays National Organisation -- the biggest party in Barisan Nasional -- to gain control of Selangor.

While the party later said its leaders were discussing possible scenarios should it leave the opposition alliance, PAS Deputy President Mohamad Sabu said this week a collaboration with UMNO is not a possibility, the Star newspaper reported.

The tussle for power might result in a snap poll if there is no consensus. Pakatan Rakyat currently holds 44 of the 56 state seats, of which 15 are controlled by PAS. UMNO has 12.

Anwar Hearing

“Regardless of the current splits that one observe within the PR, the coalition will ultimately come to a compromise,” said Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, an assistant professor and coordinator of the Malaysia program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Anwar ending up behind bars would increase the risk to his alliance’s unity, said Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. Anwar is now on bail, with a hearing scheduled for end-October. “It will certainly add to the pressure and the stress of the various leaderships, particularly those in Anwar’s party. It may also affect the internal dynamics within Selangor.”

The squabbling has also increased the danger of a prolonged water crisis in Selangor. A drought that forced the state to start rationing in February took its toll on manufacturers already grappling with higher electricity prices and fuel costs, with companies including glove makers Top Glove Corp. and Supermax Corp. halting production. Khalid’s move to nationalize the state’s water assets in an agreement with Najib that bypassed Pakatan Rakyat set off the infighting.

‘Long List’

“There is a long list of reasons why he needs to be replaced, chiefly that he and his policies are no longer aligned to the goals, principles and philosophy of the coalition,” Tony Pua, a DAP parliamentary member, said in an e-mailed response to questions on Khalid. “His increasing mismanagement of various issues” and refusal to accept criticism makes his position untenable, he said.

The People’s Justice Party pointed to Khalid’s “dubious” business deals as one reason they want him removed, the Malay Mail reported Aug. 4, citing Secretary-General Saifuddin Nasution Ismail. In a statement the same day, Khalid said the allegations were “categorically untrue” and encouraged his accusers to lodge reports with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the police.

The alliance’s parties disagree among themselves on everything from their agenda to the implementation of Islamic law in the Muslim nation.

‘Personal Agenda’

An attempt to install Anwar as Selangor’s chief minister was derailed when a court found him guilty of sodomy in March. Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia and carries a maximum jail sentence of 20 years.

The deputy of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in the late 1990s during the Asian financial crisis, Anwar was fired in 1998 as Mahathir opposed his economic prescriptions. Within a month he was arrested and spent the next six years in prison on convictions for abuse of power and sodomy.

PAS central committee member Mohd Zuhdi Marzuki has called for Anwar to retire from politics, saying his “personal agenda” has affected many Malaysians.

Regaining some control of Selangor, which it ceded in 2008, would benefit Barisan Nasional, which lost the popular vote in May 2013 general elections even as it kept a parliamentary majority. Strengthening Najib’s control of the states -- adding Selangor would give him 11 of 13 -- would help him push through an unpopular sales tax planned for April.

If the opposition can resolve its differences, “they can pull through and retain Selangor in the next election,” said Ibrahim Suffian from Merdeka. “But if they can’t, it creates more problems.”

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