Loss of two leaders threatens to rip apart Malaysia's opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat

Loss of two leaders threatens to rip apart Malaysia's opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim gestures while addressing his supporters at a gathering in Kuala Lumpur on February 9, 2015

It has been an especially tough week for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR), which lost two leaders who have done much to hold the fractious alliance together in the past seven years.

De facto leader Anwar Ibrahim was sent to jail on Tuesday. Two days later, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) spiritual leader Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat died of cancer.

They left huge question marks on whether the tripartite alliance can overcome the internal disputes that are threatening to rip it apart.

Anwar's credentials as an Islamic leader while pursuing a reform agenda helped keep PR together after it was formed in 2008. The three component parties are PAS, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

But this was always in tandem with Datuk Nik Aziz, who, in his 23 years as Kelantan menteri besar, showed how PAS can also be acceptable to non-Muslims, many of whom mourned his death.

In post-Nik Aziz PAS, conservatives are in the ascendancy and keen to introduce hardline Islamic policies such as hudud, or syariah criminal law, which prescribes punishments such as amputation and death by stoning. The DAP is fiercely opposed to this.

Analysts and even PR leaders told The Straits Times that PAS is having its most heated internal battle in decades, one that is pitting conservative ulama, or religious scholars, against more progressive "Erdogans" (named after Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said to be an Anwar ally).

"The battle for the direction of the party has become increasingly acrimonious," said DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong.

It seems clear that someone from Anwar's PKR will have to fill the role of opposition leader in his absence, as no DAP or PAS leader has a broad enough appeal.

But the ulama will see this as sidelining PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang.

Datuk Seri Hadi has been uncompromising in the past year, helping to scupper Anwar's hopes of becoming Selangor menteri besar and allowing the PAS-led Kelantan state government to propose enacting hudud.

Party delegates have, in the past, voiced their preference for Mr Hadi, instead of Anwar, to lead PR and become prime minister should it win an election.

With deputy spiritual leader Haron Din, another hardliner, set to be appointed spiritual leader by the powerful 16-member Ulama Council, it will further push PAS away from the grudging consensus-building that has allowed the alliance to pose a credible threat to the ruling Barisan Nasional.

PAS vice-president Salahuddin Ayub acknowledged that PR would struggle without Anwar and Mr Nik Aziz. "But as a second-line leader myself, I feel we have always been committed to PR, even president Hadi."

PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu, a fellow "Erdogan", told The Straits Times defiantly that "we have to be louder", when asked if they would come under renewed pressure from the ulama wing.

According to Mr Ibrahim Suffian, who heads opinion research body Merdeka Centre, three-quarters of the PAS grassroots want to remain in PR. But they are "socially conservative", he said.

"(They) know what is needed to win an election, but don't want to lose their Islamic principles," he told The Straits Times.

PAS' party election in June could decide once and for all which wing will guide the party.

"The reason spats are surfacing is (that there is a) lack of leadership and confidence, leading to a tendency (for the factions) to solidify their own core base instead of looking at long-term gains," said Mr Ibrahim.


This article was first published on February 15, 2015.
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