News analysis

Opposition hopes for better days with Mahathir's new party

Even Anwar, who had warned of reform agenda being hijacked, takes positive view

Having failed to unseat Prime Minister Najib Razak after more than a year of stinging attacks, former premier Mahathir Mohamad's unprecedented move to force a change of leadership from outside Umno is a tacit admission that he no longer has clout within the ruling party.

Tun Dr Mahathir announced on Thursday the impending formation of a party to take on the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

The move implies that his so-called Save Malaysia movement will not succeed in forcing Datuk Seri Najib - who has withstood calls to resign over alleged graft involving US$700 million (S$940 million) found in his personal accounts - out of office before an election due by 2018, analysts say.

Details about this as-yet-unnamed party are scarce, but the long-serving former premier has said it will cooperate with opposition parties in a grand coalition. Observers see it as a possible platform for Umno supporters unhappy with Mr Najib but unwilling to back hitherto enemies in the opposition.

Dr Mahathir and the opposition leaders present at a meeting on Thursday said they will have a non-competition electoral pact with opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan (PH).

"This latest move may not be additionally helpful but at least it won't hurt," said senior fellow Oh Ei Sun at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Dr Mahathir (right) with Tan Sri Muhyiddin at a media event in March. Dr Mahathir's move to force a change of leadership from outside Umno shows he no longer has clout within the ruling party. But it is not known what position Mr Muhyiddin, Umno's fo
Dr Mahathir (right) with Tan Sri Muhyiddin at a media event in March. Dr Mahathir's move to force a change of leadership from outside Umno shows he no longer has clout within the ruling party. But it is not known what position Mr Muhyiddin, Umno's former deputy president, will take in the new party. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

On the opposition's side, not everyone is fully ready to get behind a man once decried for running a dictatorship before stepping down in 2003. Not least was PH's prime ministerial candidate Anwar Ibrahim, who was sacked and jailed by Dr Mahathir. But Anwar, who was met by reporters at a court appearance yesterday, described the move by Dr Mahathir to form a new party and work with the opposition as a positive step. "We look forward to engaging with them. I think it's a positive thing," he said.

Details about this as-yet-unnamed new party are scarce, but the long-serving former premier has said that it will cooperate with opposition parties in a grand coalition. Observers see it as a possible platform for Umno supporters unhappy with Mr Najib but unwilling to back hitherto enemies in the opposition.

Anwar had in May penned a letter from jail - where he is serving time for a controversial sodomy conviction - telling his Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) colleagues to be wary of Dr Mahathir, who might hijack the opposition's reform agenda.

Sources told The Straits Times that Dr Mahathir was "basically offering to be de facto opposition leader" at Thursday's meeting, although he stopped short of presenting himself as a candidate for elections.

Perhaps of greater concern to Anwar's camp would be the still-unknown position of former Umno deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin.

If Tan Sri Muhyiddin is offered up as a prime ministerial candidate for the opposition, this would clash with Anwar's faint hope of becoming prime minister.

Sacked from the party last month, Mr Muhyiddin was absent from Thursday's meeting as he was believed to be abroad.

  • Other parties hoping to make impact

  • In the aftermath of the opposition's implosion last year, ambitious dark horses have popped up with hopes to make an impact at the next general election due in 2018.

    Aside from the ruling Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition and the main opposition bloc Pakatan Harapan, here are a few other hopefuls.

    1. PAS-IKATAN

    Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), fresh from exiting a multiracial opposition coalition last year after feuding over the implementation of hudud Islamic criminal law, announced in March a pact with the multiracial Parti Ikatan - led by former minister and ex-Umno supreme council member Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, who is known for wearing bow ties and dark suits to most functions.

    2. SAKSAMA

    A group of seven small parties, mostly from East Malaysian states Sabah and Sarawak, announced an alliance this week. The parties are mostly led by politicians unknown in national politics. The most recognisable name linked to Saksama was former Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) vice-president Jeffrey Kitingan. But he has disavowed membership.

    Saksama, which means equality in Malay, is expected to push for more rights for Sabah and Sarawak.

    3. STAR

    Mr Jeffrey Kitingan has formed yet another new political party. The Sabah opposition journeyman calls his latest creation Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (Homeland Solidarity Party), or STAR for short. He hopes to cooperate with fellow Sabahan Shafie Apdal, a former Cabinet minister who quit Umno this month. Datuk Seri Shafie, a former Umno vice-president, is planning to oust Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman, a long-time local rival.

    Shannon Teoh

"Muhyiddin's concern is whether he can be PM from outside of Umno because he is unsure if we can win the next general election. He feels he has more to lose than just his political career, and sees parallels with what Anwar suffered," a top strategist involved in Save Malaysia told The Straits Times.

Nonetheless, PH - comprising the Democratic Action Party, PKR and Parti Amanah Negara - needs all the help it can get.

It ceded ground in May's polls for Sarawak - Malaysia's largest state - and lost two by-elections by wider margins last month, despite PM Najib's troubles and a slowing economy.

The dismal performance was largely due to infighting and the failure to come to a compromise with its former partner Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the country's second-largest Muslim party after Umno. A big question is whether the opposition and Dr Mahathir could now persuade PAS from causing three-way fights at the next general election, as these would help Mr Najib's BN.

"While the new Dr M party won't split votes with PH, vote splitting vis-a-vis PAS is definitely still there," said Dr Oh of RSIS.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2016, with the headline 'Opposition hopes for better days with Mahathir's new party'. Print Edition | Subscribe