Malaysia’s Opposition Coalition Wins Again

"All's not well with BN. The slide continues. BN should count its blessings for not losing by a bigger majority".

By Jed Yoong, Asia Sentinel

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi this weekend appeared to be ending his political career on a forlorn note, on a “working visit” to the Gulf States while his hand-picked party candidate, Wan Ahmad Wan Farid lost a crucial parliamentary by-election in the conservative eastern state of Terengganu to a fundamentalist Islamic opposition candidate, Abdul Wahid Endut.

The loss of the seat doesn’t cripple the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition of ethnic political parties, which maintains a healthy 139-83 majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or Parliament. But the defeat probably guarantees a period of continuing political turbulence as factions within Badawi’s United Malays National Organisation jockey for position and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, headed by Anwar Ibrahim, considers ways to maximize its growing political clout.

In particular, within UMNO, Badawi’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, faces an uphill battle to become head of the party’s youth wing in elections in March. Khairy, who was intensively involved in the Terengganu race, faces Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of the former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who has been doing his best to drive Badawi from power. Many of the Badawi people will probably slip into political oblivion when the prime minister goes, especially if Khairy loses the UMNO Youth position.

If the opposition continues its upward trajectory, sources within the Malay political structure told Asia Sentinel over the weekend, ultimately questions will have to be asked about how an unwieldy coalition of Parti se-Islam Malaysia – a fundamentalist Islamic party, the Democratic Action Party – a putatively socialist and Chinese chauvinist party – and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, made up of urban, moderate Malays – will be able to stay together, let alone govern without centrifugal forces pulling it apart. PAS, for instance, favors strengthening and extending Islamic religious laws across the country, while both of the other component parties are increasingly secular and do not want to see the country regress to religious hegemony. A long-time political adage, somewhat exaggerated, is that Muslims believe that if they eat pork it will send them to hell and that the Chinese believe they must eat pork or they will die. But it does demonstrate how deep the cultural divisions are between the opposition components.

The Terengganu loss is the second straight parliamentary defeat for the Barisan since its relative electoral drubbing last March when it lost its two-thirds majority in the Parliament for the first time since Malaysia became a nation 50 years ago. And, at a time when the increasingly politically unpalatable deputy prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, would like to call a general election after he is scheduled to take power from Badawi in March, it raises concerns about whether the ruling coalition and UMNO in particular is losing its grip on the electorate.

Badawi is being basically driven out of his own party because of loss of the two-thirds majority, particularly by the furious criticisms leveled at him by the splenetic octogenarian former prime minister. However, a wide range of political observers in Kuala Lumpur say Badawi’s lack of success wasn’t because he agreed to follow in Mahathir’s footsteps, playing crony politics and keeping the status quo, but that he didn’t do enough to clean out the mess Mahathir had left behind him, with a thoroughly ineffective and largely corrupt judiciary, a large rent-seeking class of UMNO cronies growing fat on government contracts, and other problems.

That has been compounded by the outgoing prime minister’s indecisiveness and lack of attention to politics, exemplified by his decision to leave for the Middle East on his current junket instead of staying home to fight what his party regarded as a crucial by-election. Although Badawi had picked Wan Ahmad over the objections of some UMNO leaders to be the Terengganu candidate, it was Najib who took personal charge of the race along with Khairy, at one point staging a circus-like event in the town of Kuala Terengganu to hand out hundreds of millions of ringgit in contracts to local businessmen.

The Barisan is now bracing for state elections in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak later this year in which the long-serving leader of the state, Abdul Taib Mahmud, is under increasing fire for having lost touch with the electorate and for perceptions of corruption.