What Does the Collapse of Malaysia’s Opposition Mean?

Malaysia’s fragile, tripartite opposition alliance has split.

What Does the Collapse of Malaysia’s Opposition Mean?
Credit: Flickr/Firdaus Latif

On Tuesday, a party official confirmed that Malaysia’s fragile three-party opposition alliance, known as the Pakatan Rakyat, had collapsed following a split over several issues.

For ardent watchers of Malaysian politics, this should come as no surprise. As I have written before, Pakatan Rakyat had always been a rather unwieldy coalition, comprised of Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), a conservative Islamist party; the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an ethnic Chinese minority party; and the People’s Justice Party (PKR), a multi-racial, secular party which used to be headed by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim before his arrest in February on sedition charges (See: “Post-Anwar: Malaysia’s Gloomy Future”). Even party insiders admitted that Anwar’s arrest was a severe blow to the opposition, as he was a key figure in holding the coalition together (See: “Malaysia After the Anwar Verdict”).

Since then, the parties have been bickering over divisive issues, including PAS’s desire to introduce an Islamic penal code in one of the 13 states of a secular, Muslim-majority country with significant Chinese and Indian minorities. Earlier this month, Islamic conservatives swept the top leadership of the PAS party congress and approved a motion to sever ties with the DAP. On June 16, DAP Secretary General Lim Guan Eng officially announced in a statement seen by The Diplomat that with PAS cutting ties with the DAP, the alliance “ceases to exist.”

While this is no doubt a setback for Malaysia’s opposition, it is unclear exactly what this means for its future. Opposition coalition leader and PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail has yet to issue an official statement. And with Malaysia’s next general election to be held only by 2018, that leaves space for all kinds of regroupings or realignments. PAS and DAP could still work out their differences and revive Pakatan Rakyat. Alternatively, the opposition alliance could re-form under different circumstances. DAP’s statement notably left open the possibility of working toward “a broad-based and principled new coalition that shall emerge to fill the political vacuum.”

Malaysia’s ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), for its part, will welcome the reprieve that comes with a fractured opposition, however temporary it may be. While BN won Malaysia’s last general election, it lost the popular vote to the opposition, which mounted the most serious challenge yet to the coalition that has ruled the country since independence in 1957. The government of Prime Minister Najib Razak has also been beset in 2014 by a damaging financial scandal involving state fund 1MDB, concerns over its handling of the economy, and assaults by Malaysia’s still influential former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has called for Najib’s resignation.

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Given the groundbreaking developments in both the ruling and opposition coalitions in just the first half of 2015, it remains to be seen how the fortunes of both sides will play out in the years ahead leading up to the country’s next general election.