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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 24, 2009
Thin loyalties in Malaysia
By Anil Netto

PENANG - Leaders of Malaysia's opposition alliance have ended speculation that one of its three parties, the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), would break ranks to enter "unity talks" with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

The opposition alliance, known as the Pakatan Rakyat (PR or "People's Alliance") , had after a strong showing at last year's polls bid to lure enough defections from the BN to topple the government and form its own administration. UMNO in response has attempted to lure PAS members to its side through appeals to the party's ethnic Malay constituencies.

A joint statement released on Monday by leaders of the multi-ethnic Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), People's Justice Party, the largely Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and


Islamic PAS would appear to slam the door shut on those overtures.

The council of leaders reaffirmed their "rejection of the idea of forming a unity government with UMNO/Barisan Nasional, which is clearly a malicious and desperate attempt to compromise the integrity of the increasingly popular Pakatan Rakyat."

The Pakatan leaders, however, left the door ajar for talks with the BN on specific issues such as economic recovery, eradication of corruption and education. Until now, it was a great irony in Malaysian politics that the "unity talks" proposal between the PAS and UMNO - the two largest ethnic Malay-based parties in the country - had led to so much disunity and disagreement.

The controversy first surfaced after the PR made unprecedented inroads in the 2008 general election, winning five of the 13 states in the federation, while denying the BN its coveted two-thirds parliamentary majority. A series of issues - corruption, marginalization of ethnic minorities, growing wealth disparities - had eroded public support for the BN in the run-up to the election.

At those polls, the three PR parties worked hand-in-hand not to divide opposition votes by agreeing to put up only one candidate in each of parliament's 222 constituencies to go one-on-one with BN candidates. The results saw the opposition parties win 82 seats by placing strongly in urban and ethnically mixed areas, with individual parties' respective supporters willing to vote for opposition alliance candidates across party lines.

But talk soon surfaced in the election's aftermath that certain conservative PAS leaders, uncomfortable with the PR's multi-ethnic and multi-religious platform, were being enticed to join forces with the BN in a strategic bid to retake key states the ruling coalition narrowly lost, including Selangor and Perak. The BN re-seized control over Perak earlier this year through controversial opposition defections to its side.

Even after Perak's political takeover, speculation of PAS overtures towards UMNO persisted. That ruffled feathers inside the PR and raised questions about the opposition's own unity. DAP party advisor Lim Kit Siang said that predicating unity talks exclusively among Malay-Muslims made a mockery of Prime Minister Najib Razak's much-touted "One Malaysia" vision of harmony for all races and religions.

The unity talks overture also created divisions within PAS. The party's conservative president Hadi Awang and his deputy Nasharudin Mat Isa were known to favor entering the talks with UMNO while the party's influential spiritual leader, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, was dead set against them.

Nik Aziz, a slight man with a wispy beard who has won widespread admiration for his simple lifestyle, is currently chief minister of Kelantan state. Nik Aziz had lashed out at those who supported the proposal and asked Nasharudin to resign his post as deputy president and join UMNO if he was so interested in "unity". Over the weekend, ten PAS members of parliament (MPs) threw their support behind Nik Aziz's stand against the talks.

Race-based flirtation
Many opposition supporters were also dismayed with the PAS-UMNO flirtation, seeing it as a betrayal of the opposition's mandate to bring about political change and reforms. The PR leaders' flat rejection on Monday of the PAS-UMNO unity talks proposal suggests that the DAP, the PKR as well as Nik Aziz and his PAS colleagues have, at least for now, prevailed over the current top PAS leadership.

Questions remain about why UMNO, the dominant party in the ruling BN, was so receptive to the prospect of sharing power with PAS. Since the 2008 general elections, UMNO leaders have been acutely aware of the erosion in popular support for the BN. Since then the ruling coalition has lost five out of the last six by-elections, with each loss coming by a larger majority compared to last year's general election result.

Even if PAS had finally joined UMNO, the number of parliamentary seats the two would have jointly held exclusive of other BN members still would not have represented a simple parliamentary majority. UMNO currently accounts for 78 of the BN's total 137 seats, while PAS counts for 23 of the PR's 81 seats. The remaining four seats are held by non-affiliated parties and an independent.

Political analysts say that the BN has a "safe deposit" of votes it can rely on in the north Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, which account for 25% of the 222 parliamentary seats. The opposition parties' support is still largely confined to peninsular Malaysia and their attempts to make inroads into north Borneo have so far failed to gain significant traction.

UMNO also still retains support in its ethnic Malay strongholds of Johor and Pahang. But the BN's erstwhile coalition partners representing minority ethnic groups have seen an equally significant erosion in popular support. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) both received a drubbing at the last general election and the unity talks proposal with PAS would have cast them into deeper irrelevance.

Even if UMNO were to lose more ground at the next general election, the Sabah, Sarawak and, had an alliance been formed, PAS seats would shield it from defeat. With the PR leaders' rejection of the proposal, UMNO will need new strategies to shore up its flagging support. Despite mounting opposition criticism, UMNO is widely perceived to have failed to introduce any meaningful reforms to promote greater democracy and accountability or cut back on traditional cronyism, rent-seeking and corruption.

Meanwhile, PAS heavies Nik Aziz and Nasharudin have in a public attempt at damage control smoothed over their earlier conflict. Behind the show of unity, however, is a battle between conservatives and moderates for the party's soul. In recent years, PAS has played down its long held ambition of creating an Islamic state and re-branded the party with the tagline "PAS for all".

Many of its elected MPs no longer wear conservative Muslim attire at public events and the party's popular rising stars project a more urbane and open approach that has resonated with ethnic minority Chinese and Indian voters. It would seem that more conservative PAS leaders now realize the potential political costs, personally and for the party, of joining hands with UMNO.

Having survived UMNO's attempt at divide and rule politics, the PR must now mend cracks within its own ranks before new polls.

Anil Netto is a freelance writer based in Penang, Malaysia.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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