Who will take on Najib? Malaysia's opposition isn't sure

With a general election looming, the four-party alliance hasn't named its candidate to take on Prime Minister Najib Razak.
With a general election looming, the four-party alliance hasn't named its candidate to take on Prime Minister Najib Razak. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (BLOOMBERG) - Malaysia's had six prime ministers since independence and the opposition knows who it wants as the eighth. It is unsure who should be the seventh.

With a general election looming the four-party alliance hasn't named its candidate to take on Prime Minister Najib Razak. Pakatan Harapan - or the Pact of Hope - plans to seek a royal pardon for jailed de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim if it wins, but it would need an interim premier, and right now it can't say who that might be.

Indecision isn't new to the opposition. It has struggled for momentum since the 2013 election, despite coming the closest to unseating Najib's coalition. Since then, policy differences and public squabbling have gotten in the way of the one thing the parties have in common: a desire to oust Najib.

"When you can't even name your prime ministerial candidate, that puts voters in doubt," said Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, an associate professor at Universiti Utara Malaysia.

"It's shameful and embarrassing and it's impeding the ability of Pakatan to go into or even win the next election."

Pakatan, formed in 2015 after the implosion of a previous coalition, is betting that dissatisfaction against Najib will be enough to sway electors, even if they do not know who they'd be voting for as premier.

Mahathir Mohamad - who was the country's longest serving premier and has become Najib's mentor-turned-chief critic - is a possible interim leader. But at 92 he's been out of office for 14 years, and it's unclear how much voter support he can garner.

"People are quite certain if they vote for the present administration, their economic situation won't improve," said Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, which is part of Pakatan.

"They're yearning for change and Pakatan has a group of leaders that's miles ahead and can save Malaysia. We have certain names in mind but it's something to be decided later. It's a question of strategy."

Luring ethnic Malay votes from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is crucial for Pakatan to have any shot at power. Najib has repeatedly warned his Malay base that the special status of Islam in Malaysia would be threatened if the opposition, which he says is led by the DAP, gains power. The DAP has the most parliamentary seats of any opposition party.

Pakatan's new leadership structure is dominated by Malays. Anwar, his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, and Mahathir are all at the top - albeit with different titles.

"What's the point of naming three leaders when all you need is one?" said Ahmad Martadha, the university professor. "It shows there is still a leadership crisis that hasn't been solved."

It's difficult to get a straight answer from opposition officials on who holds the power. Mahathir declared himself "top dog" in the hierarchy, saying he was the "equivalent of Najib." Lim said it's Wan Azizah because she's the opposition chief in parliament.

Pakatan is now seeking agreement on how its parties will approach the elections. It has chosen an arrowhead-shaped symbol for its flags, billboards and posters. 

After netizens mocked the logo for resembling the Starfleet insignia from Star Trek, Wan Azizah said the opposition aimed to boldly go where it had not gone before

."We have progressed much, much more in leaps and bounds from where we were a year ago," said Rafizi Ramli, vice president of the opposition People's Justice Party. "From hopelessness where the public was concerned, they now see us as capable of being in power."

A big question mark is the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, which has split with the opposition alliance. PAS has drawn closer to Najib and could be a spoiler for the opposition. Equally, if PAS leaders agree to avoid multi-cornered fights with Pakatan, it would boost the chances of the opposition gaining power.

"PAS's relationships with other parties are all just political strategy," said Muhammad Khalil, national director of the PAS youth wing and son of the party's chief.

"It can change, it is not static."

Some opposition leaders express misgivings in private about the durability of Pakatan. While Mahathir's party champions Malay nationalism, Anwar's party wants to reexamine the affirmative action programs that benefited the same group.

"Should we win, I don't know what will happen," said one senior figure in the alliance, asking not to be identified talking about internal politics.

"We come from different groups and we have different ideas on what a post-Barisan country would look like. I hope that time will bring us closer."