KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's two biggest Malay Muslim parties inked a political cooperation pact on Saturday (Sept 14) that they hope will spur the majority community to unite against perceived threats from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.
Over 10,000 party faithful, most dressed in white, packed the Putra World Trade Centre to witness the chiefs of former rivals Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) sign a "National Cooperation" charter outlining the terms of their pact, which has shown success in several by-elections as an informal arrangement over the past year.
The large crowd spilled over into nearby halls, corridors and stairwells to watch the proceedings on several screens.
"This movement offers a New Deal. This cooperation is the main option to replace a kakistocratic government (a government by the least qualified or most unscrupulous people) that has made this country a failed state," Umno president Zahid Hamidi said in his speech just prior to putting pen to paper.
The charter outlined the parameters of the tie-up, which stressed the primacy of Islam and the Malays without denying the rights of Malaysia's other minority communities such as the Chinese and Indians.
The once-dominant Umno - humbled after losing their six-decade grip on power last year - and perennial opposition stalwart PAS, are ending over 40 years of enmity with this alliance that has sparked fears of racial polarisation.
But PAS president Hadi Awang dismissed this notion at the event, which was also attended by representatives of non-Muslim opposition parties.
Instead, he said that the pact was merely defending the community from "daring political parties and individuals who challenge the position of Islam, the special rights of Malays and the royalty".
"Grow the love for your own people and save all Muslims. This is not racism because if we were racists, other people would not be able to live with us from long ago," he said.
While the two parties may control over two-thirds of the Malay vote, it would be nearly impossible to win a parliamentary majority without MPs from wards with largely non-Muslim voters. Umno has in the past relied on partners in Sabah and Sarawak, where conservative Islam is shunned, to form a government.
Both presidents told a press conference after the signing that it was too soon to plan their strategies and seat allocation for the next general election, due by 2023.
But PAS chief Hadi said there were plans to share power in the four state governments they control, as "we are now family". Umno currently forms the state government in Pahang and Perlis, while PAS administers Kelantan and Terengganu.
PH's victory in the general election last May was partly due to the Malay vote being split between itself, Umno and PAS.
But since then, Umno and PAS have teamed up to win all three by-elections this year in seats where Malays form the largest community. Electoral data also showed that their combined vote hauls would have won them an additional 21 parliamentary wards that had instead elected PH candidates at the national polls last year - enough to have stopped Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's shock return to power.
The two parties have been at the front line of allegations that PH policies are eroding Malay and Muslim rights and privileges.
Approval ratings for PH have sunk from 75 per cent when they formed government to 41 per cent as of July. Among the Malays, who form the majority in more than half of Parliament's 222 seats, less than a third polled said they were happy with the ruling coalition.
Tun Dr Mahathir has sought to disrupt the united Umno-PAS front, pointing out deep rivalries among their party faithful, especially after Mr Hadi's 1981 decree that Umno members were infidels.
"Even the United Nations charter cannot stop wars, let alone the Umno-PAS charter," Dr Mahathir said last Tuesday.