Anwar holds the PAS

How stable is Malaysia’s would-be coalition government?

Anwar holds the PAS (Illustration by Claudio Munoz)
Anwar holds the PAS (Illustration by Claudio Munoz)

LIFE in the rubber-tapping villages of Manek Urai, in north-eastern Malaysia, rarely raises the pulse. How much more exciting, then, was the July 14th state by-election, narrowly won by a pious fishmonger. During the campaign, a bevy of national politicians descended on the district to woo its 12,293 voters, whose former assemblyman from the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) had died in May. As usual, Malaysia’s ruling coalition did not come empty-handed: villagers in Manek Urai were promised a new bridge if they chose wisely. Instead, they stuck with PAS, by just 65 votes.

The bridge will have to wait, but PAS’s celebrations had more to do with relief than joy. Politically, the by-election victory counts for little as PAS already has a comfortable majority in conservative Kelantan, one of four states ruled by the opposition. But the symbolism is potent. The seat is rural and dominated by ethnic Malays, who form the bedrock of support not only for PAS but for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party of the ruling coalition. The vote was the first since a new prime minister, Najib Razak, took office in April. A victory would have snapped UMNO’s losing streak. In March 2008 the government surrendered its cherished two-thirds majority in parliament. It has lost five of six subsequent by-elections to opponents led by a former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who went on trial this week on a sodomy charge that he calls politically motivated.

Mr Anwar is the glue holding together an unlikely alliance of the Islamist PAS, the secular Democratic Action Party (DAP) and a multiracial party of his own called the People’s Justice party. The coalition is riven by ideological splits and statehouse squabbles and Mr Anwar’s legal troubles have unsettled it further. The DAP recently threatened to quit a PAS-led state government after it demolished an unlicensed pig abattoir. Party officials feud openly.

Naturally, the government likes to play up such incidents. But the divisions, while manageable, are real, admits Liew Chin Tong, a member of parliament for the DAP. The main question is how far to protect the rights and interests of the Malay majority. This sometimes pits the Chinese-oriented Dap on the one hand against both PAS and UMNO on the other, leading some PAS figures to talk up the idea of a detente between the two parties—though they have been slapped down by PAS’s spiritual leader (and chief minister of Kelantan) Nik Aziz Nik Mat. PAS itself is split between old-guard clerical conservatives, who favour unity talks and more Islamic laws, and a moderate faction known as “Erdogan”, after Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

That Malaysia’s politics pivots on the whims of a divided Islamist party which favours sharia law sounds alarming. Various sharia laws are on the books in Kelantan (including stoning for adulterers and rapists), though the federal government has blocked their enforcement. PAS officials are fuzzy on what would happen if, as seems probable, the opposition eventually comes to power at the national level. But the likelihood is that secular laws would prevail, given the coalition’s make-up. In addition, PAS has in fact shed much of its fundamentalist baggage over time. It has rebranded its emphasis on Islamic jurisprudence as a commitment to social justice and clean governance—in contrast to UMNO’s money-grubbing image. Over the past decade, young Malay professionals from outside its northeastern base have swollen its ranks. Some are now standing for office and, remarkably, winning the support of Chinese and Indian voters. Even UMNO officials concede that PAS has moved into the mainstream.

It remains possible that PAS could split, with part buttressing UMNO in government and part staying in opposition. Conservatives in the rural heartland may be tempted to jump ship if UMNO dangles the right goodies, arguing that safeguarding Malay rights trumps everything else. But that would bring them into conflict with Mr Anwar, who wants to abolish the much-abused racial-quota system and tackle poverty among all races. And PAS members who do link arms with UMNO run the risk of alienating voters who want change at the top and are willing to forgo electoral bribes—as the villagers of Manek Urai showed.

The Economist

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