Can Mahathir's new party revive Malaysia's opposition?

In the latest twist of events in Malaysian politics, the former prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has announced that he intends to form a new political party. He revealed that the party, which still requires approval from the Registrar of Societies, will be part of a new opposition coalition.

Details of this new opposition pact are sketchy at the moment, though the aim is unequivocal: to prevent opposition parties from contesting against one another in the forthcoming general election.

Dr Mahathir also hopes that PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia) remains an opposition-friendly party, and makes amends with the other opposition parties - DAP (Democratic Action Party), PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) and PAN (Parti Amanah Negara). He indicated that he may lead the new party as "first among equals", but may not run as a candidate.

This seems likely to raise the temperature within the opposition camp, knowing too well that there could be a snap election in the country. Is this latest move a sign of desperation on his part? Has his bid to topple Prime Minister Najib Razak through people power arrived at a dead end? In March, he announced he was leading a "People's Declaration" which called for Datuk Seri Najib's resignation.

There are several reasons Dr Mahathir has decided to take this route. All other avenues to bring down the Prime Minister appear to have been exhausted. Mr Najib has been reluctant to step down. The only way to remove him is when the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and the dominant party in BN, Umno, are toppled. After last month's by-election victories in Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar, Mr Najib has consolidated his grip in the party.

So confident was the Prime Minister that he dismissed former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and former Kedah chief minister Mukhriz Mahathir (son of Dr Mahathir) from the party without fear of any backlash from the grassroots. The BN also won big in the Sarawak state elections, which boosted the coalition's confidence in regaining popular support after the 2013 election.

Unity in the opposition camp is key if it ever wants to challenge BN again. The opposition badly misses a unifying figure such as Anwar Ibrahim, who is now serving a jail sentence. Someone of Dr Mahathir's stature could be a boon for the opposition, especially in uniting them again. But he is both a unifying and divisive figure.

For PKR members to convince the electorate they have made amends with Dr Mahathir is akin to grasping at straws. Anwar has sent letters from prison cautioning PKR members about working closely with Dr Mahathir. At the latter's press conference, Anwar's wife, Dr Wan Azizah, who is also PKR president, was not present.

PAS leaders have also urged Dr Mahathir to support the amendments to the Syariah Court Act 1965 before the party joins his coalition. The DAP may not agree to this move to amend the Act.

Challenges remain for this new coalition. In order for it not to fail like past opposition coalitions Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Coalition) or Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance), the new set-up has to quickly come out with a common party platform. As it is, BN leaders have already mocked Dr Mahathir for working with his former political rivals, Mr Lim Kit Siang and Mr Lim Guan Eng from the DAP.

Soon, they will be pressed on the party's stance over the perennial issues of an Islamic state, meritocracy and race-based politics.

In order to swing votes back to the opposition, it would not be sufficient for the coalition to unite just to unseat Mr Najib. This new coalition also has to move beyond personality politics, given how the campaign for Anwar's release from prison failed miserably.

Malaysians want to see leadership renewal in the political arena and not see it dominated by the old guard. While veteran politicians like Dr Mahathir and Mr Lim Kit Siang can guide this new coalition, younger leaders must be allowed to take charge.

More importantly, this new coalition must also quickly come up with a shadow Cabinet if it is serious about taking over Putrajaya. This is urgent in the event the Prime Minister calls for a snap election, which BN will likely win.

The naming of a shadow Cabinet has always been a challenge for the opposition. It is in the interests of the electorate that they know who will be the new prime minister if BN falls.

It is too early to assess whether this new proposed opposition coalition will have any impact on Malaysian politics. The upcoming weeks will be crucial for the coalition, especially in establishing unity within its ranks, and casting off past baggage the various opposition parties and leaders might have had with Dr Mahathir when he was prime minister.

The opposition's biggest hope is that in the last elections, more than half of Malaysians voted against BN. Hence, if the new coalition carries out its campaigning effectively, it can still be a force to be reckoned with.

  • Norshahril Saat is a Fellow at the ISEAS- Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches on Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore politics.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline Can Mahathir's new party revive Malaysia's opposition?. Subscribe