Could Malaysia’s long-term opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, emerge as the country’s equivalent to the victorious Joe Biden in this weekend’s up-coming election?
It has started to look possible.
Once again thwarted, following victory at the last election, by a coup coalition made up of his own defectors and the losing parties, he had till recently stood in danger of being written off in Malaysian politics.
Like Joe Biden in the United States, Anwar, who has been jailed twice as a political prisoner for a total of ten years, was being widely dismissed as a ‘yesterday’s man’.
The anger was largely focused around frustration at the loss of office and also apparent efforts on Anwar’s part to negotiate a solution with some of more notorious figures from the 2020 coup – the so-called ‘Court Cluster’ of UMNO politicians who were prosecuted for corruption before they overthrew the elected government.
Now well into his 70s Anwar also cut little ice during the Covid lockdowns, seemingly inactive in his ‘bunker’ in KL and failing to call out the return of corrupt incompetences by the same crooked politicians who had been voted out of office.
With a swathe of new young voters expected to play a crucial role in the upcoming polls there was a thirst for a fresh image to replace the ‘repeat loser’ and ‘man of the 90’s’ on the reform ticket represented by the Harapan (Hope) coalition of which Anwar’s own PKR party is a leading constituent, together with the predominantly Chinese ethnic party, DAP. Harapan had won the previous election in 2018.
However, after depressing months of in-party wrangling, all such tensions were successfully ironed out during the run up to the election announcement, and the younger candidates such as his Deputy, Rafizi Ramli, have lined up behind Anwar as their leader.
Likewise DAP, has reorganised to ditch potentially toxic baggage, such as its former leader Lim Guan Eng who is struggling against a barrage of legal actions brought in a tit for tat by the present government and has fallen behind Anwar, together with Amanah and the youth party Muda.
Harapan, has thus pulled together. The coalition has entered the election united under an undisputed leader and with a clear policy agenda. It has a record of 18 months of effective government and there is little scandal to tarnish the party’s reputation.
By contrast, the incumbent coalition which moved with such apparent confidence and determination to call a snap early poll has dissolved into a squabbling mess. Having seized power through treachery and blatant bribery in early 2020 the three main constituents of this alliance have fought for the upper hand. With the polls in sight that rivalry has become a free-for-all.
There have been two prime ministers during the brief PN/BN period in office. First PN’s Muhyiddin Yassin and then BN/UMNO’s Ismail Sabri, a clear reflection of the existing power struggle.
One driving force behind the coup had been the eventually unsuccessful campaign by the former UMNO prime minister, Najib Razak, to quash his multi-billion dollar corruption trials. Throughout, the party’s former adversary, the Islamic extremist party PAS, has played kingmaker, creating a dangerous slide towards increasing religious interference in a multi-ethnic and diverse federation.
Yet at the start of the campaign the BN/PN/PAS coalition seemed to hold the upper hand. They had the advantages of incumbency, and deep pockets following an seemingly ‘traditional approach’ to exploiting the benefits of office. There was also a sense of momentum on their side with the incumbent coalition having won a number of state government elections in recent months.
With such apparent advantages in their favour UMNO President Zahid Hamidi had therefore prevailed on his Vice President, the present Prime Minister Ismail Sabri, to call the snap early election (unconscionably during the monsoon rains) in order to take advantage of the perceived momentum before the flagging economy caused wider social impact and – crucially – before his own mass of outstanding corruption cases reach the stage of judgement.
Zahid’s predecessor, ex-PM Najib Razak, was finally jailed over the mammoth 1MDB corruption scandal last month and the pressure on his successor has visibly been building with no less than 72 charges that have been heading through the courts against Malaysia’s most famous Swiss watch collector.
With Anwar as ever strapped for cash and seemingly distant, distracted and a by-gone figure the BN/PN/PAS alliance stepped into the ring with apparent confidence.
They seemingly put out of their minds the fact that for the past two years the evidence of corrupt practice by leading members of the coalition has been paraded through the courts; likewise the extensive hardships and sense of government bad management during Covid; and also the recent spate of brand new scandals (in particular the disastrous LCS naval ships contract) involving many in the present administration.
Another matter the incumbents had plainly chosen to ignore in their own minds was the fact that recent state election successes were all notably achieved on remarkably low turn outs during difficult Covid restrictions during which the opposition Harapan parties were largely unable to mobilise their campaigns.
Almost from the word go therefore that confidence perhaps unsurprisingly began to present as a potential massive miscalculation and product of self-delusion. Seen from a voter’s perspective the incumbent government represents a collection of losing parties who snatched power having lost it originally over corruption concerns. Nothing the coalition has done has allayed those concerns about corruption.
The same electorate has observed at their leisure how from the get-go the predominant pre-occupation for UMNO’s leadership once back in office was to get the prosecutions dropped against a swathe of their leading figures, a project that has mostly been carried out successfully with the exception of the former premier Najib himself.
Ironically, Najib, thanks to his desperate campaign of Trump-style denialism, emerged as the one more popular figure from that process, influencing a credible percentage of believers among grassroots members – only to end up banged in jail.
Most damaging of all, however, has been the triggering effect of the election campaign in unleashing the barely concealed rivalries between the incumbent parties, which had seethed beneath their self-interested power-sharing arrangements of the past two years.
This has proved an unnecessary and potentially devastating own goal: a failure of the survival instincts of political veterans greedy for power and under pressure.
Whilst Harapan has presented a steady and united front, successfully dividing out its seats between candidates from the constituent parties, BN/UMNO and PN/PAS have staggeringly opted instead to run against each other in every single seat.
Not only have they as a result split their target vote – the conservative Malays – but the open rivalry has pitched the former coalition allies squarely against each other rather than their opponents. No one had anticipated they would be so stupid and so short-sighted. Everyone had assumed they would get their act together for an election they themselves had called.
It was the exact same division between UMNO and PAS which had enabled the Harapan win in 2018 – one would have assumed that once bitten these ‘political warlords’ would have …. ceased to act as warlords. But they have not been able to help themselves.
As a result there has been little need for Anwar and his Harapan allies to do more than step aside. Government’s proverbially lose elections rather than oppositions winning them after all, so why not allow the surprise spectacle and internecine bloodbath to take centre stage?
In fact, from the start of the campaign it has been Harapan that has nonetheless most vigorously mobilised its election machinery with ceramics across the country with a visible new energy flooding a coalition so recently also at war with itself. Anwar is a crowd-pulling orator and at last he has gone on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, PN and BN have been muted by comparison whilst targeting each other. PN have sought to present itself as the ‘clean’ option to BN/UMNO and tarred its former ally in the process. The job has been improved upon by UMNO’s own hope for the future, the comparatively youthful Khairy Jamaluddin (it is worth pointing out that all the warlords up for election are of the same generation as Anwar).
Khairy was forced to make way in his constituency for Zahid’s chosen Number Two Tok Mat (also at the centre of corruption allegations) and has come out with a telling pledge that he will make it his business to clean the party up. Some advert. Possibly apocryphal texts are now doing the rounds of Khairy allegedly messaging his party workers to sabotage Tok Mat’s attempt to win the seat. He will doubtless deny they are genuine but people can’t be blamed for thinking them rather believable.
PN’s attempt to distance itself from all the dirt that it complains of is just as unlikely to wash with much of the electorate, given that the PN leadership are all recently ex-UMNO themselves and have shown willing to work with UMNO for the past two years to undermine the elected Harapan government and its reform agenda.
Questions have been raised about PN’s noticeable deep pockets during this election with speculation, not least from the Pakatan ex-PM Dr Mahathir, that the 18 months the leader Muhyiddin Yassin spent as Prime Minister may explain it. Mahathir is also running in this election targeting the same conservative Malay vote as PN and BN to split their following further still.
UMNO is itself further split by an ugly battle between the interests of Zahid who has increasingly presented an air of desperation as his trials loom ever closer and PM Ismail who has led the country but does not control the party.
The Harapan slogan warning ‘Vote Ismail Gain Zahid’ took on new significance after Zahid again wielded his influence after the calling of the election to ensure the sidelining of eight key Ismail supporters from the present cabinet, denying them positions as candidates at the election.
Thus it was that as dusk went down on nomination day, just a fortnight before the election it, it had already become clear that not only was UMNO fighting its former allies in PN, but it was fighting within itself.
It gets more desperate still. Zahid, despite being the most powerful national figure in UMNO, has barely left his own constituency throughout the campaign. There is a reason. His already small margin of victory last time round – just 3,000 at the last election – has been slashed by the removal of an army base of 2,000 men he had arranged to be placed in his own constituency for the very reason he could manipulate the votes.
The pressure on this supposedly supremely confident UMNO warlord perhaps told most during a campaign meeting of top party leaders last week, which was for them unfortunately recorded.
This was the ‘mother of all elections’ which they have to win, warned Zahid – because if they failed it would not be just him that would end up in jail.
The embattled leader went on to point at those of his colleagues known to be also vulnerable to corruption charges and indicated they too (including his deputy Tok Mat) would be following him into the dock. The damning self-admission, although administered in apparent jest and accusing Harapan of persecution rather than justified prosecution, has proven one of the most effective messages of the entire election campaign for Anwar’s team, sparking a surge of TickTok satire at UMNO’s expense.
Those who said Malaysians are not troubled by issues of corruption were proved wrong at the last election and it seems strange to imagine electors will ignore the issue this time round.
The sense of unravelling for the present cobbled together governing alliance is strongest on the ground in Johor, say opposition campaigners. Johoreans voted for their ex-Menteri Besar and present PN leader, Muhyiddin (PM 2020-2021) when he was a leading figure for the reforming Harapan opposition in 2018.
However, he betrayed Harapan to seize the top job in collusion with his former political enemies, the losing UMNO and PAS whom he had campaigned against. He together with PKR renegade Azmin Ali and their followers have been rightly regarded as traitors to their electors – so-called frogs – and yet they are seeking to sweep the country with their new PN coalition.
It seems Muhyiddin has failed to see in the mirror what his constituents saw which was his role as a King Frog in 2020 and has been surprised at the lacklustre support in his once secure political fortress of Johor. He now is even rumoured to be in danger of losing his own seat leaving the Prime Ministerial candidate of PN itself in as much doubt as that of BN.
Should he lose the most likely substitute would be the deeply unpopular PKR ‘frog’, Azmin Ali. So alongside ‘Vote Ismail/UMNO Gain Zahid’ Harapan can promote the warning ‘Vote PN Get Azmin’! Two of the most tarnished politicians in Malaysia are therefore now looming over the once confident campaign of PM Ismail Sabri, whom everyone agrees is likely to be ditched within seconds in the event of any win by UMNO.
The toxic Islamic bigotry of their coalition allies from PAS has meanwhile, as ever, peppered the dialogue of the debate in most unhelpful ways, with priestly candidates making pejorative remarks about women being unfit to take on political positions and non-Malay Muslim party candidates being destined to go to hell.
PAS are also revealed as being at one another’s throats. A senior figure in the party, Takiyuddin Hassan, had only to open his mouth this week to suggest that their PN grouping might well in the end opt to do a deal with the “corrupted” UMNO/BN in order to secure power after the election, to be slapped down by his boss Hadi Awang.
PAS has announced as part of its election stance (as the ‘holy party’) that it has ruled out uniting with crooked politicians, despite having found no difficulty in allying with the self-same UMNO/BN in order to enjoy ministerial office and other perks for all of its MPs over the past two and a half years. The whiff of hypocrisy has, not for the first time, caught the notice of discerning voters.
Under such circumstances there has turned out to be little requirement from Anwar and his allies to find ways of doing damage to the flailing caretaker coalition. They are doing all the damage necessary to themselves and presenting a scene of confusion and chaos for voters who can have no way of knowing who would be the prime minister should they vote for either of the two contenders – or indeed for PAS, which presently supports PN (we think).
Like with President Biden in the United States, it is therefore becoming increasingly clear that it has been premature to write off Anwar Ibrahim’s chances at this election. He may have been cast as a has-been, however, contrasted with the extreme, unruly, corrupted alternatives on offer he also represents reliability, order, moderation and a recognisable agenda.
PH is a united party with a clear plan for reform whilst its opponents have presented themselves as a squabbling, confused and deeply tarnished body of self-servers, interested in office mainly to save themselves and promote their private interests.
Moreover, there is the question of who’s in charge. There is a lesson waiting to be taught to that group of politicians who cheated the electorate – the so-called ‘frogs’ whose antics have been subsequently outlawed by unanimous agreement to change the law. Included among them are the PN leaders and Azmin’s men. These gentlemen are acting as if it’s all forgotten, but their electorates remember making each and every one of their seats perilous despite their deep pocketed tactics to win back votes.
Anwar has just three more days to bide his time and avoid any traps in his own campaign, which has so far seen few major hiccups.
If he can maintain that steady course the so-called ‘Red Wave’ that failed to break in the West against Biden last week, may break East in favour of Harapan instead. Their colour coding may be opposite but the stabilising allure of both men for voters, in the face of chaos and confusion on the opposing side, holds much in common.