UMNO and PAS: A Frenemy Marriage?

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UMNO and PAS: A Frenemy Marriage?

The new Malay-Muslim alliance between two major opposition forces could accelerate further polarization of Malaysian politics.

UMNO and PAS: A Frenemy Marriage?

Members from UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) in red, and members from PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) wave their parties flag during an event of officially join alliance in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

On September 13 and 14, a two-day gathering named Himpunan Penyatuan Ummah, or the Muslim Unity Rally, was held at the Putra World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur. It was a familiar gathering venue for the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the country’s longest governing party, which fell out of power after a painful defeat in the last general election. What made the rally different this time, however, were participants with green flags with white full moons – the flags of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

The rally reportedly attracted more than 10,000 supporters of both the UMNO and the PAS, two parties that have been rivals for decades. The highlight of the event was a signing ceremony of Piagam Muafakat Nasional or the National Consensus Charter, which brought the two major Malay-Muslim opposition parties into an alliance. Through the charter, these two old enemies are now friends – at least on paper.

The charter itself – a brief one-pager – seems to have been carefully crafted not to provoke political controversies. It reaffirms the principles of the Federal Constitution, including Islam as the federal religion, the sovereignty of the Malay rulers, the special position of the Malays and the Bumiputeras (indigenous population), and the Malay language as the national language. It notes that the two parties will empower an Islamic, Malay, and Bumiputera agenda within the framework of the Federal Constitution. By also referring to their considerations over the interests of the non-Malays as well as the diversity of religions and races in the country, the pact keeps a relatively moderate tone.

Forming an alliance or coalition – especially when contesting an election or forming a government – is not necessarily a rare phenomenon in an electoral democracy. The importance of this alliance, however, should be understood in a context beyond any numerical calculation. In the political arena where ethnic-based parties are predominant, both the UMNO and the PAS have roots in the peninsular Malay base. Among the Malays, however, these two parties have taken different positions on the spectrum. 

The UMNO, established by English-educated nationalists around the time of independence, has traditionally kept its relatively secular position while emphasizing its ethnic aspect as the “protector” of the Malays. On the other hand, the PAS, dominated by Muslim clerics, has tended to put more emphasis on the religious aspect of politics. It was this difference that kept them as rivals, and their contestation often, in turn, reinforced the different positioning of each party. More importantly, this rivalry between the Malay-Muslim parties has provided a certain equilibrium in Malaysian politics – except for the time period when the PAS joined the UMNO-led government in the 1970s. This marriage between two old “frenemies” has a certain impact on the overall political landscape in a sense that it could break the existing equilibrium.

The newly formed alliance will impact the nature of inter-party competition and this leads to questions regarding who will gain the most from this arrangement. 

One of the chief objectives that the parties are aiming for is obviously to overthrow the current Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in the next general election – especially through candidate coordination to avoid competition among the members of the unified Malay-Muslim opposition. This coordination could mathematically make sense considering the fact that the three-party contest benefited PH in more than a dozen constituencies.

At the same time, however, the potential losses due to this alliance also needs to be considered. The UMNO especially could lose a certain amount of votes from non-Malays, which they previously enjoyed the support of through a long-running coalition with other ethnic-based parties in the Barisan Nasional (BN). Likewise, the UMNO-led BN might no longer expect sufficient support in Sabah and Sarawak, where voters tend to prefer secular options, even though these places have long been considered as leaning toward the BN. Even among the Malays on the peninsula, though still uncertain at this point, there is still a possibility that Prime Minister Mahathir’s party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM) in the government will boost their support by taking on the UMNO base. The PAS, on the other hand, hardly seems likely to lose their existing base, though they could penetrate into the UMNO’s core of supporters. All in all, the alliance could be a double-edged sword for the UMNO, while the PAS might be relatively better off at least in the near future.

The longer-term implications go well beyond party politics, regardless of how the alliance develops or the future of two parties. The marriage of the Malay-Muslim streams at the opposition side could further deepen the ethnic-based cleavages that already existed in Malaysia. Previously, the contestation of two different streams – through the UMNO and the PAS – had provided a certain equilibrium, if not always a peaceful one. The UMNO’s historical coalition with other non-Malay parties and the PAS’s previous attempts to form the opposition coalition with non-religious parties have somehow prevented each from going to extremes. Therefore, what this marriage could mean is not just the alliance between “frenemies,” but the breaking of the existing equilibrium, which could accelerate the further polarization in Malaysian politics. While the ruling coalition is undergoing internal struggles, this new development at the opposition side is also likely to add uncertainty to the country’s future political landscape.

Michio Ueda is a political scientist based in Tokyo. He studies party politics and elections in Southeast and East Asian countries. Michio received an M.A. distinction in Southeast Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied as a Fulbright fellow. He previously worked in the Japan Ministry of Defense and the Boston Consulting Group.