KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – The jailing of Anwar Ibrahim dashes the dreams of millions of Malaysians yearning to oust the country’s authoritarian regime, unless his shell-shocked opposition movement can bridge deep differences without his unifying presence, analysts said.
The suddenly leader-less opposition must continue its fight against a government that, despite a worsening reputation at home and abroad, is digging in its heels and looks unlikely to face any serious international repercussions for throwing the opposition leader behind bars.
Since it was formed seven years ago, the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) alliance has had little in common other than a desire to defeat the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has ruled with a tight grip since independence in 1957.
Pakatan’s ability to seize unprecedented swathes of parliament in recent elections allowed it to push aside questions over its cohesiveness, but no longer, said Ibrahim Suffian, Malaysia’s leading political pollster.
“Anwar’s jailing forces them to deal with those problems now. The question is whether they can,” he said.
Alliance members are at each other’s throats over policy and leadership differences.
The main source of discord is the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is calling for harsh Syariah law in a state it governs and pressing for more influence in the largely progressive opposition.
Syariah is strongly opposed by PAS’s partners – the Democratic Action Party dominated by ethnic Chinese, and Anwar’s centrist People’s Justice Party. The internal differences nearly caused Pakatan’s collapse last year in a bitter dispute over a key state, and have prevented formulation of a post-Anwar succession plan.
All eyes are now on whether PAS progressives can wrest control from a conservative leadership in June party polls. Suffian gives them a 50-50 chance.
“It’s all up to PAS. If the moderates can’t take over, Pakatan will probably break up,” he said. That would be a crushing disappointment to millions of voters.
While living standards have soared under UMNO over the decades, disgust runs high over corruption, crony capitalism, rights abuses, and the destruction of once-rich rainforests by government-linked logging and agricultural interests.
Laying bare the national mood, Pakatan won 52 per cent of votes cast in 2013 elections, though Prime Minister Najib Razak clung to power thanks to a skewed parliamentary system.
Anwar, 67, was jailed for five years, and faces a further five-year politics ban after his release, over a sodomy conviction he calls a government conspiracy.
Speculation has risen that outrage of the affair could finally vault Pakatan to power.
But with their undisputed standard-bearer now eliminated, the coalition must survive a leadership battle expected to be bruising, said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia politics analyst.
“Who leads Pakatan is a question that will be very difficult to resolve, and has already fueled a lot of division even before the Anwar decision,” she said.
Speculation has centred on Anwar’s longtime protege Azmin Ali, considered among the only possible consensus candidates.
But he lacks Anwar’s charisma on the stump and it remains to be seen whether he will appeal to other Pakatan members.
“I don’t deny we have some problems at the top leadership, but I think now is the right time for Pakatan to move forward based on a common framework that we have agreed before,” Azmin told reporters Tuesday.