Malaysia opposition averts rift as Islamic party toes line

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's resurgent opposition coalition appeared to have averted a rift as its Islamic partner threw its support behind the other member parties on Sunday after weeks of wrangling.

Unprecedented electoral gains have enabled the three-party opposition to present a united front in the last two polls despite wide religious differences and pose a real challenge to the ruling coalition which has governed the country since independence.

But an impasse over a key political appointment put the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) on a collision course with its two more-secular partners, reigniting doubts over the alliance's future.

A possible split-up was however averted after PAS said it remained committed to the Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact) following a meeting of top PAS leaders.

"We are trying very hard to strengthen our coalition. Our bottom line is... to ensure that Pakatan Rakyat is the alternative in Malaysian politics," PAS vice president Salahuddin Ayub told reporters.

The row centred on a bid by de facto Pakatan head Anwar Ibrahim to have his widely respected wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, head Selangor, Muslim-majority Malaysia's richest and most populous state, which the opposition won in 2008.

PAS earlier opposed the move, but on Sunday threw its support behind Wan Azizah rather than the incumbent chief minister, Khalid Ibrahim, who has been sacked from Anwar's party for refusing to relinquish the post.

Khalid said in a statement he would seek an audience with Selangor's sultan, who must endorse the chief minister, for "advice on the next steps" now that he had lost PAS support.

A deepening divide has become clear, however, within PAS between a moderate faction and more conservative officials who advocate harsh sharia Islamic criminal punishments and are upset with concessions made to the more secular partner parties.

"Maybe within the coalition they can work it out but public trust has been severely damaged, especially in PAS," Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of Malaysian public policy think-tank IDEAS and a PAS member, told AFP.

The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its partners have run Malaysia virtually uninterrupted since independence in 1957 but have increasingly come under criticism for alleged corruption, high-handedness and discrimination against the country's sizable non-Muslim ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

UMNO's coalition lost the popular vote for the first time in elections last year to Pakatan promises of clean government, racial harmony and a freer society though it retained the majority of parliament seats.

Since 2008, the once-hapless opposition has rallied around Anwar, a charismatic former deputy premier who was ousted from UMNO in a late-1990s power struggle.

Anwar is appealing against a March conviction on a sodomy charge, widely seen as trumped up, that could see him jailed and end his political career.