Published on Feb 06, 2015 in The Edge Review

Malaysia’s opposition coalition united in backing troubled leader Anwar Ibrahim but divided in almost everything else. It may not survive…

Malaysia waits with bated breath for a new twist to its most celebrated political saga. On February 10, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is scheduled to learn his fate when a judgment is made on his appeal against sodomy charges.

One thing is certain: if Anwar escapes the political noose this round, there remain other charges to bring and other opportunities to remove him from the political scene. This is only another battle in a long war begun in 1998.

Ironically, a conviction now may even help his opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, to win in the longer term. It is often said, but few inside the system fully appreciate, that jail time will make Anwar a martyr for a new generation, rally his supporters at home and abroad and signal the weakness of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government in its need to remove an opponent.

Convictions of opposition figures have a long history of backfiring. This may even occur in Najib’s own party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which heads the ruling coalition. He would face further suspicion that he is not a strong leader and this will potentially erode his support.

What a conviction of Anwar will not do, however, is meaningfully bring together his own fractured opposition coalition, at least in the short term. Sure, there will be a common bond, a connection over a national injustice, but this will not be enough to strengthen ties.

Despite UMNO’s myopic focus on Anwar, the fate of Malaysia’s opposition has long moved beyond one man. Anwar no longer serves as the unifying figure he was in 2008, especially after the debacle of him being forced to stand down as a candidate for Selangor chief minister last year when his sodomy acquittal was overturned last March.

Pakatan has been in trouble for some time. Open public bickering, revelations of a breakdown in leadership communication and the near absence for over a year of one of the coalition leaders, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) President Hadi Awang, at Pakatan Rakyat functions just touch the surface of the opposition’s non-functionality.

The opposition lacks a clear policy programme or even priorities and appears to have forgotten about the majority of voters who put them in office in the first place. Since its inception it has failed to form a shadow Cabinet, denting public confidence in its ability to govern.

Bogged down in infighting and politicking, the focus has been on winning internal battles rather than on good governance and this has led to an erosion of public support.

Looking ahead, the prognosis is not good. Divisive forces dominate Pakatan. UMNO has carefully played off individual party insecurities in its closed-door negotiations over the redrawing of electoral boundaries, feeding distrust and competition.

In jockeying for their own interests rather than address fundamental electoral reform problems, Pakatan parties are losing the moral high ground.

Racialised and heated debate over religious rights, often stoked by reactionary groups and provoked by an unchecked religious bureaucracy, has heightened the Pakatan parties’ ideological differences.

They have adopted defensive positions, catering to their base rather than the middle ground. Neither the Islamist PAS nor the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) are willing to back down.

These differences will come to a head as elections draw close. R Column The PAS has already started its delegate selection for its party polls this June.

The contest will centre on the leadership of Hadi Awang, who has brought PAS to the brink of splitting and whose refusal to step down echoes the authoritarian practices of Middle Eastern leaders.

A vote for Hadi – currently favoured to win – has already been portrayed as a loyalty test, with advocates of more cordial Pakatan cooperation labelled traitors. Pakatan has become a punching bag in the PAS election.

The DAP is also in election mode. With the Sarawak state polls to be held before mid-2016, it aims to protect and consolidate its base in East Malaysia. It does not see an alliance with a conservative-led PAS as conducive to winning seats, so the parties have been engaged in a game of Pakatan chicken, pushing the other to leave the coalition first with open jabs and personal attacks.

Given all this, does the opposition coalition face separation, even divorce? Yes – although more likely the former than the latter.

Unless the festering troubles are addressed and Pakatan starts acting like a truly national opposition, it is destined for division, irrespective of what happens in the Anwar courtroom.