Break up of Malaysia's opposition bloc Pakatan Rakyat: What happened and what's next?

Pakatan Rakyat leaders (from left) Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng, Anwar Ibrahim, Abdul Hadi Awang and Nik Aziz Nik Mat at the alliance’s manifesto launch in 2013.
Pakatan Rakyat leaders (from left) Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng, Anwar Ibrahim, Abdul Hadi Awang and Nik Aziz Nik Mat at the alliance’s manifesto launch in 2013. PHOTO: ST FILE

Malaysia's three-party opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has split up over a series of policy disputes, including calls for the implementation of the Islamic penal code, or hudud, in Kelantan.

The Democratic Action Party (DAP) announced on Tuesday (June 16) that the alliance was dead, blaming it on Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). But more significantly, the collapse left the third component party - Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) - in a potentially dire situation.

Here's what you should know about the break up of PR and what may happen next:

What is Pakatan Rakyat?

The opposition bloc was formed in April 2008, uniting opposition parties that had long been pushed around by the governing Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN). Experts said PR was always a fragile alliance, given that it brought together bedfellows who were opposed ideologically, particularly the Islamist PAS and the secular DAP.

The bloc won 52 per cent of the popular vote in the 2013 elections, tapping into growing resentment of Umno's rule and corruption scandals. It failed to take power due to Umno gerrymandering, but its stunning performance under leader Anwar Ibrahim - jailed earlier this year on sodomy charges widely seen as trumped up by the government - had raised the possibility of a historic change of power in Malaysia.

The PR currently controls three states: Kelantan (PAS-led), Penang (DAP-led) and Selangor (PKR-led). The DAP holds 37 of 222 seats in Malaysia's parliament, the PKR 29, and PAS 21.

What happened?

When PAS saw its share of seats shrink in the 2013 election, it started to reassert its Islamic agenda and push for hudud in Kelantan state. Its president Abdul Hadi Awang was criticised for pushing a bill on hudud without consulting his opposition partners. This led to the DAP announcing in March that it would no longer work with the PAS leader.

The rift worsened this month after the PAS leadership was captured by conservatives and the party accepted a motion by its conservative ulama (clerics) wing to sever ties with the DAP.

In response, DAP's Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng said in a statement on Tuesday (June 16) that the PR no longer exist. Mr Lim, who is also Penang's Chief Minister, said it was the PAS president's unilateral decision to push for hudud and his party's decision to sever ties with DAP that led to the PR's collapse. He added that the DAP would continue to work with PKR and other parties that want to end BN's rule "to reshape and realign Malaysian politics with the aim of winning Putrajaya for the people".

Dismissing the DAP's statement, PAS Youth chief Nik Mohamad Abduh Nik Abdul Aziz said the opposition alliance was still intact. "DAP's decision will not dissolve the coalition," he stressed.

PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said on Wednesday (June 17) that PKR will not cut its ties with the DAP and PAS, blaming neither but chiding both for precipitating a crisis. "PR no longer functions formally," she said in a statement, emphasising that PKR would continue to support the DAP-led Penang state government and the PAS-led Kelantan state government.

What are the implications?

Analysts are divided over how Umno and the ruling BN, as well as Prime Minister Najib Razak could benefit from the break up of the PR.

"Opposition in disarray is certainly helpful for Najib's survival. He is now actively courting Sabah and Sarawak for support even within Umno and BN. As long as he can convince the party he can still deliver, the party members will stick with him. Corruption is not a cardinal sin for Umno leaders. Mahathir had his own shares of financial scandals but he ruled for 23 years. Najib, and certainly Rosmah, see no reason why they can't learn from Mahathir," said Penang Institute fellow Wong Chin Huat, referring to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and wife of Mr Najib, Rosmah Mansor.

But analyst Tan Seng Keat from the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research said the impact is difficult to predict. Umno and its coalition are racked by infighting of their own, as concerns over the economy and damaging financial scandals have further raised the possibility of defeat in the next polls, due by 2018.

On the opposition side, the DAP has asked PAS representatives to resign from their posts in the Penang state government and its agencies. PAS does not hold any influence in the state assembly as it has only one lawmaker while DAP dominates the 40-seat state legislature with 29 assemblymen.

PAS, on the other hand, controls the Kelantan state assembly with 32 out of 45 seats. DAP has no representatives while PKR has only one.

PKR, however, could find itself in potentially dire straits. It cannot sustain a majority in the 57-seat Selangor state assembly without the support of both PAS and DAP. The party had wanted to mediate between the two feuding partners but DAP turned down its offer.

PAS strategist Zuhdi Marzuki has called for the formation of a new political pact involving only Malay-Muslim parties, similar to one that PAS joined and was led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in the 1990s. It was disbanded after Tengku Razaleigh rejoined Umno in 1996.

"Now it is up to PKR which leads Selangor to decide whether it wants to continue with a coalition with PAS in PR or not," Dr Zuhdi said. "If PKR also withdraws from PR, then it is not impossible that the Selangor state government will become shaky."

What could happen next?

The opposition parties and even the ruling BN may seek new realignments, including:

A new opposition pact

Analaysts believe the DAP and PKR will try to link up with a new partner to form a new opposition pact before the next general election because this remains their only realistic path to defeating BN. Along with PAS, PR has 87 seats in Parliament against BN's 134. A possible partner is a new party mooted by PasMa, a PAS splinter group formed last year. Following the conservative sweep in PAS' party elections earlier this month and the collapse of PR, PasMa said it was in discussion with several leaders and parties to set up a new moderate Islamic party that could cooperate with both PKR and DAP.

"It is back to square one until they find a replacement vehicle for PAS. May or may not be PasMa. PR needs a party for Islamists and rural areas, something PKR is not good at," said Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania.

PAS and Umno coalition

The possibility of a unity government of PAS and Umno - the key, Malay-based party in BN - has been talked about since before the 2013 General Election. With the conservatives now dominating PAS, it is increasingly likely that the two parties may be tempted to work together.

However, it is unclear if Umno is willing to risk breaking up its own multiracial coalition to embrace the Islamist PAS. Although Umno supported the PAS-run Kelantan government's plans to adopt hudud in March this year, Mr Najib has yet to make his stand on hudud.

"It is most unlikely that Umno will accept PAS in a Malay/Muslim-only unity government as this will mean the effective breakup of the Barisan as a multiracial, multi-religious coalition," said Centre for Policy Initiatives director Lim Teck Ghee.

However, Mr Wong, the Penang Institute fellow, said Umno might compromise, allowing PAS safe seats in Kelantan and Terengganu in the next general election.

"What will likely happen is a covert pact between the two, with PAS attacking DAP, PKR and the PAS pragmatists if they leave the party.

"Since it is in the interest of Umno to keep PAS floating, Umno will not put up a full fight in some seats in Kelantan and Terengganu so that PAS will survive with 10 seats or so. A complete collapse of hardliners within PAS will drive the Islamist voters to the splinter party, PKR or even DAP."