Sunday, February 22, 2015

Can Malaysia’s Opposition Survive Anwar’s Jail Term?

The parties that make up the opposition are not a natural fit. Can they hold together?

Last week, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was sentenced to jail for the second time in his life on charges of sodomy. Anwar’s jail term was set by Malaysia’s highest court at five years, and the opposition leader likely will never be able to hold a position in Malaysian politics or government again. Amidst outcry by the opposition, as well as international rights groups, about the Anwar trial and decision—Human Rights Watch called the verdict “politically motivated proceedings under an abusive and archaic law”—some in the three-party opposition alliance also worry that the coalition will face challenges holding together with the charismatic Anwar gone. Of the three parties comprising the opposition alliance, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) appeals primarily to liberal, urban ethnic Chinese, the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) appeals mostly to religious Malay Muslims, and Anwar’s Keadilin, or People’s Justice Party, appeals mostly to middle and upper-income, urban Malays.

On the face of it, the three have little in common other than a shared desire to get rid of the long-ruling governing coalition. PAS and the Democratic Action Party have vastly divergent views of the role of religious authorities—principally, Muslim religious authorities—in a secular state, while the parties in the coalition also have somewhat differing views on the role of the state in economic policymaking and other key policy issues.

For years, Anwar’s leadership skills, public persona, and relationships with the leaders of the three parties in his coalition helped the opposition stick together, well enough, to present united policy platforms and united fronts in national elections. This unity did not mean that, if the opposition had ever won control of Parliament, they would have been able to survive without massive in-fighting. But a coalition put together just to win power that cracks upon getting power is hardly unusual. Anwar’s coalition never even got the chance. It won the most votes in the 2013 national election, but never won a majority of seats in Parliament.

Now, many opposition supporters are publicly worrying about internal bickering undermining the coalition in the post-Anwar era. The coalition lacks another figure with Anwar’s status and ability to bridge the chasms between the parties on many issues. Anwar’s wife, who has served as a kind of stand-in for him at times when he has been jailed, is almost surely unacceptable to the conservative PAS leaders as a potential head of the coalition. The likely next head of the coalition, the leader of Selangor state, Azmin Ali, is a skilled politician and former Anwar aide accepted by all three parties. But Azmin Ali does not have Anwar’s years of experience, towering personality, and international contacts.

Still, one analyst of Malaysia’s politics, Mohamed Nawab of the Malaysia Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), believes Anwar’s jailing might not be so detrimental to the opposition. He argues that some of the leaders of the DAP and PAS had tired of Anwar’s leadership style, that Anwar’s jailing will unite the opposition in a show of solidarity, and that younger coalition leaders will now be able to emerge and build greater grassroots support for the opposition.

I think there is some truth to this argument, but is an overstatement. With Anwar gone, the opposition may be forced to bolster its ground game before the next election, boosting grassroots politicking, gaining new members, and showcasing potential young, rising politicians that could run for MP or for state office in the future. Anwar was always more focused on high-level politics, and international affairs, than on the grassroots. A new coalition leader may place emphasis on rebuilding and expanding the coalition’s support across Malaysia, and especially in East Malaysia. This rejuvenation at the grassroots level could pay off in the next national election, if the opposition is able to better match the ruling coalition’s get-out-the-vote efforts, to field better candidates across the board (and especially in East Malaysia), and to fight back more effectively against the state media.

However, to get to this next election, and make use of a grassroots rebuilding effort, the coalition has to survive until then. Will it? Anwar would have held it together by the force of his personality. Another leader might not be able to.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This post appears courtesy of

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