“PH’s Unprecedented Demonstration of Opposition Unity” by Norshahril Saat

2018/2, 8 January 2018

On 7 January, Malaysia’s opposition coalition, PH (Pact of Hope) held its first ever convention. Attendees include delegates from four political parties: Amanah (National Trust Party), DAP (Democratic Action Party), PKR (People’s Justice Party) and PBBM (Malaysian United Indigenous Party). The meeting is an important milestone for the opposition for a number of reasons. First, never before in the Malaysia’s political history has the opposition showed this level of unity. Past coalitions were weak ideologically and mired with infighting. Second, in an unprecedented move, the four parties settled on seat allocation for the elections. According to Saifuddin Abdullah, PH’s Chief Secretary, the seat allocation are as follows: Amanah (27 seats); DAP (35 seats), PBBM (52 seats); and PKR (51 seats). Although the agreement only refers to seats in the Peninsula, the opposition’s ability to settle this before the elections is commendable because it will prevent any overlapping claims or misunderstandings during the campaigning period. At the convention, PH also announced its candidates for Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister: Mahathir Mohamed for the former and Wan Azizah Wan Ismail for the latter. The move is a sign that PH is targeting Malay and rural voters— which remain ruling BN’s (National Front) stronghold—on top of its traditional urban and non-Malay voters.

Although the announcements made at the PH convention will help the opposition’s cause, it still has a mountain to climb. The Registrar of Societies (RoS) has not approved its registration as a single party, which means it cannot use the PH logo during elections. Moreover, it remains unclear how party branches at the grassroots will react to the seat allocation announcement. One can expect PBBM and PKR to be targeting UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) seats, and Amanah concentrating on PAS (Islamic Party of Malaysia) seats. Mahathir admitted that Amanah and PKR made the many sacrifices on this aspect in the name of opposition unity. Interestingly, DAP has willingly taken a back seat this time, and Mahathir himself confessed the party made the least demands. This shows how DAP is concentrating on retaining the seats it won in the last elections, especially urban and Chinese-majority areas.

With seat allocation settled, PH has to move quickly to work on other pressing challenges. It must ensure party activists remain loyal to the opposition’s cause and that no party member will crossover to BN as the election approaches. Most importantly, it has to be clear of its plans for Sabah and Sarawak, because the East Malaysian states are the kingmakers in the next elections, as much as in the past. To be sure, they remain BN’s stronghold. Issues regarding Prime Minister Najib Razak and 1MDB scandal may be on the minds of East Malaysians, but there are other issues as well. Lastly, it must stand firmly behind Mahathir, who is both a unifying and polarising figure. How it convinces the public about its move to embrace a figure it once scorned remains a challenge.

Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also Adjunct Lecturer with Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS).

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