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
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
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
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.
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
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.