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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia opposition meltdown threatens fragile ruling coalition

Exodus of MPs to Mahathir faction portends possible revolt by Anwar forces

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, right, has promised to hand over the premiership to Anwar Ibrahim, but tensions are rising within their coalition.   © AP

KUALA LUMPUR -- The meltdown of Malaysia's main opposition party is threatening the ruling coalition, as opposition lawmakers flooding into Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's faction change the coalition's balance of power.

Some observers fear an internal revolt by Prime Minister-in waiting Anwar Ibrahim's party, which is the largest force in the coalition.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president of the main opposition party, United Malays National Organization, said he will transfer leadership to his deputy to prevent UMNO from breaking apart.

"I urge that there be no more defections by lawmakers after this," Zahid said in a statement on Dec. 18.

UMNO, once the leading party within the ruling coalition, has suffered a major blow since the May 9 election, seeing about 17 of its 54 parliamentarians deserting it. The party's reputation has been tarnished by the prosecution of former President and Prime Minister Najib Razak on corruption charges. Those who left the party include former minister Mustapa Mohamed, who has since joined Mahathir's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. Other defectors have become independents.

Zahid's resignation is largely expected following calls within UMNO that questioned his leadership. The former deputy prime minister is facing trial on over 40 corruption charges involving more than 100 million ringgit ($24 million).

Passing the mantle to his deputy -- a former provincial leader -- may allow Zahid to satisfy his detractors, but not necessarily stop further rot within UMNO. Already, one lawmaker has approached Anwar Ibrahim, pledging support for the prime minister-in-waiting.

This signals a bigger issue facing Malaysia's two-coalition parliamentary system, which is modeled after the U.K's. Westminster democracy.

United Malays National Organization's (UMNO) President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi waves as he walks into a courtroom at the Kuala Lumpur High Court on Oct. 19.   © AP

Pakatan Harapan has been bolstered as UMNO deserters joined the ruling alliance, but the situation also risks increasing the fight for supporters among the three Malay-centric parties. UMNO's support for Anwar hints at a possible revolt within Pakatan Harapan to unseat Mahathir.

According to political scientist Wong Chin Huat at the Penang Institute, Pribumi's relation with Anwar-led Parti Keadilan Rakyat -- the biggest party in the ruling alliance -- will be strained if more UMNO lawmakers are accepted by Pribumi.

The latest turmoil highlights the fragility of the ruling coalition. Anwar's party has been split into two camps: one led by him and another by his deputy Azmin Ali, currently the powerful minister of economic affairs.

It is also reflected in the recent resignation of Nurul Izzah from all party posts following criticism of nepotism. Izzah is Anwar's eldest daughter and also a ruling lawmaker, along with her mother, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Furthermore, with its power further weakening in parliament, UMNO will be pressed to partner with smaller opposition blocs, including the conservative Islamic party, PAS. Such an alliance was seen recently when both parties rallied over 50,000 supporters to protest an international treaty on racial equality.

"Deprived of the prospect of taking federal power, it is likely that opposition blocs would only compete from the flank, both threatening to tear Malaysia apart," said Wong.

As a matter of policy, both UMNO and PAS defend Malay and Islamic rights, reinforcing the belief that Malays are losing out to the economically affluent ethnic Chinese.

This division hinders the reforms promised by the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope. One example is the government's backing down on its promise to force repayment of student loans by attaching borrowers' salaries. Ethnic Malays form the majority of these borrowers.

There will be a "modest increase" in economic nationalism in Malaysia in the form of further delays to trade deals, said Peter Mumford of risk consultancy Eurasia Group. Mahathir has put on hold the ratification of the multilateral trade deal Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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