Malaysia's opposition set to ditch PAS

With polls looming, Pakatan Harapan and PPBM going ahead with own electoral pact

Flags and banners of opposition rivals Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Parti Amanah Negara, as well as those of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, lining a street in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, during campaigning for the by-election in June 2016.
Flags and banners of opposition rivals Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Parti Amanah Negara, as well as those of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, lining a street in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, during campaigning for the by-election in June 2016. PHOTO: THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Malaysia's opposition alliance looks set to abandon hopes of contesting the upcoming general election with fellow opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) by its side, party leaders say.

After months of futile wooing, the tripartite Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) went ahead with their own electoral pact. The Straits Times understands that strategies are being formulated that exclude the conservative Islamic party.

Such a move would benefit Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. It might even result in handing back Datuk Seri Najib a two-thirds supermajority in Parliament that the government last held before the 2008 General Election, politicians and analysts say.

Former prime minister Mahathir cut to the heart of the matter when he said last month: "If we can't achieve (a united front) because there are those with a hidden agenda of helping Najib stay in power, then we will move on without them."

The general election is widely expected to be held this year, creating a sense of urgency in the opposition ranks that either PAS returns to the fold, or be abandoned immediately.

PAS bitterly broke ties with the rest of the opposition in 2015 over its conservative Islamic agenda and leadership appointments.

It began instead to work with BN linchpin party Umno on religious issues - a move that could sway the Malay-Muslim majority to lean further away from PH and its allies.

The bad blood is especially clear between PAS and PH's Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara, formed by PAS rebels.

"There is a growing consensus for PPBM and Amanah to take over from PAS. Negotiations are ongoing for PPBM to take about 40 of the more Malay seats, while Amanah will slot in for 30 or so on the more multiracial end," said a top PH strategist.

One strategy that the PAS-less opposition wants to adopt is to equate the Islamic party with Umno, seen in some circles as aloof and governing with impunity after leading BN to victory in all the 13 general elections since independence.

"If PAS is not with us, we need to make it clear as early as possible that a vote for PAS is a vote for Umno," an aide to Tun Dr Mahathir told The Straits Times. The DAP and Amanah are ready to proceed on this course, their leaders say.

But on paper, the maths look terrible for the opposition if it were to go ahead without PAS.

At the 2013 polls, BN won 133 seats, far in excess of the 112 needed for a simple majority. PAS won 21, but in 16 of these, the BN candidate managed to gain over 40 per cent of the vote.

If the next election sees the opposition splitting its support in PAS-held seats, BN could snatch the 15 more needed to reach the 148 for two-thirds control of Parliament.

Having a two-thirds supermajority will allow BN to make unilateral changes to electoral rules and the national Constitution.

What's more, PAS has promised to retaliate and field candidates in areas held by other opposition parties if its own districts are disturbed, handing an even bigger advantage to the ruling coalition.

The mess of having three-cornered fights involving two opposition parties was seen in two by-elections last June, in Sungai Besar in Selangor and Perak's royal town of Kuala Kangsar.

BN won handily when the opposition was represented by both PAS and Amanah.

There is more bad news. An opposition without PAS will have an uphill battle to win federal power, after coming so close the last time around.

Today in 2017, after seat adjustments caused by by-elections and defections, the combined opposition - minus PAS - has a total of 76 seats, according to Parliament's official website.

This means the PH-PPBM alliance will need to win a massive 36 more seats to become the next government, an almost impossible feat.

Still, some of its leaders are determined to slog on, seeing in scandal-hit Mr Najib a leader who has chinks in his armour.

When asked about PH's chances without PAS, DAP political education director Liew Chin Tong, widely credited with masterminding the party's huge gains in 2013, said: "If we want change, we have to get away from the old ways of doing things, whether it is Umno in the south or PAS in the north."

The opposition went south into Johor in 2013 and weakened Umno. PAS' turn in the north could be next, according to this view.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2017, with the headline 'Malaysia's opposition set to ditch PAS'. Print Edition | Subscribe