News analysis

Pakatan shows unity with Malaysian PM deal but challenges lie ahead

Dr Mahathir Mohamad was announced as the prime ministerial candidate for the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, but will make way for Anwar Ibrahim when the latter is released from prison and given a royal pardon. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR - Pakatan Harapan's grand gesture of conciliation on Sunday (Jan 7) between former premier Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, the protege he sacked from Cabinet in 1998, is targeted at shoring up Malay support for the opposition ahead of Malaysia's general elections.

The opposition pact announced that the 92-year-old Tun Mahathir is Pakatan's candidate for prime minister if it wins federal power, but that he will make way for jailed opposition leader Anwar when Anwar is released from prison and given a royal pardon.

This brings closure to a long feud that caused what analysts call the the biggest schism in Malay politics - when Malaysia's ethnic majority took to the streets to protest Anwar's removal and subsequent imprisonment in 1999, and turned its back on ruling party Umno.

"Two decades after the biggest rupture in the Malay political psyche, this reconciliation demands their attention especially at a time when there appears to be a lack of leadership in the country," Malay sociopolitical expert Eddin Khoo told The Straits Times.

It was telling that Dr Mahathir's wife Siti Hasmah Ali began to sob when the announcement was made, before she was comforted by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who also broke down in tears.

The move to have two former Umno strongmen leading the opposition's charge also calls into question Umno's claim that it is the only party that can defend Malay rights.

"The idea of needing to keep Umno, rather than the Najib administration in power, is a reflection of this uncertainty over Malay leadership," said Mr Khoo.

The desire to address waning support among Malays - who form the majority in more than half of Malaysia's 222 parliamentary wards - drove Pakatan to make its joint declaration on who will lead its government, as well as the division of seats amongst its member parties.

Dr Mahathir's one-year-old Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia grabbed the most districts in the Malay-dominated peninsula, while Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat will contest in the most number of wards nationwide, with Sabah and Sarawak included.

Relegating Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) to third fiddle behind these Malay-led parties also allays fears stoked by Umno that the Malay majority will lose its primacy, or have its rights eroded, if there is a change of government.

Yesterday's announcement also pits Prime Minister Najib Razak, 64, against Dr Mahathir, a veteran statesman who ruled for 22 years as an Umno heavyweight.

"It is a direct contest between Najib and Mahathir. Mahathir is very attractive to Malays and is expected to placate their concerns about DAP's dominance," said ISEAS-Yusof Ishak senior visiting fellow Wan Saiful Wan Jan.

But despite defying criticism that it is in disarray by presenting a united front yesterday, Pakatan still has plenty of ground to cover if it is to be a serious contender against ruling coalition Barisan Nasional.

Respected pollster Merdeka Center revealed in a recent survey that BN is expected to lose even more votes this year, having ceded the popular majority in 2013.

But the opinion research house concluded that gerry-mandering and three-cornered fights with Parti Islam SeMalaysia, which commands fervert support among conservative Muslims, could lead to Datuk Seri Najib being returned to power with the two-thirds parliamentary supermajority that BN lost in 2008.

The next step for Pakatan, say analysts, is to focus discussion on the administration's policies.

Mr Wan Saiful said that as "Pakatan wants to widen the debate into policy matters" with the government mired in various controversies, "the next important test is to agree on a united manifesto".

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