Can Malaysia's opposition survive without Anwar Ibrahim?

Family members of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim hold a placard during a press conference about the "March To Freedom" campaign in Segambut, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 11 February 2015 Image copyright EPA
Image caption With Anwar Ibrahim behind bars, who will lead Malaysia's opposition?

The decision last week by a Malaysian court to jail Anwar Ibrahim has left his opposition alliance in a precarious place.

Mr Anwar is now serving a five-year term for sodomy, in a case seen by many as politically motivated.

The sentence keeps the charismatic leader out of politics and out of the next election.

In the last poll, his Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance came closer than any previous challenger to toppling the governing coalition.

"Without Anwar Ibrahim there would be no PR," said prominent human rights activist Ambiga Sreenevasan at a forum last week on the opposition's political future.

Like many analysts who spoke to the BBC, she believes the alliance can survive in his absence but says there are big challenges.

"They need to stop their internal bickering because quite frankly it is very tiring for the people," she said.

Three very different parties make up the opposition alliance:

  • The Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS) is mainly made up of ethnic Malay-Muslim members who want to push for an Islamic state.
  • The more liberal Democratic Action Party (DAP) is still largely seen as an ethnic Chinese-based party consisting of Buddhists and Christians.
  • Mr Anwar's own party, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), boasts a mix of races and religions.

The three parties came together with the aim of ending the five-decade rule of the governing Barisan Nasional coalition.

Mr Anwar - who was also jailed between 1999 and 2004 - promised to help them achieve that. Vowing to fight corruption, he led the parties to major gains in the last two elections.

The PR now holds more than a third of parliamentary seats and the states of Penang, Selangor and Kelantan.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Anwar Ibrahim has been in and out of the courts since falling out with the governing coalition

Timeline: Anwar Ibrahim

  • 1993 - 1998: Deputy prime minister under Mahathir bin Mohamad
  • 1999: Jailed for abuse of power, sparking street protests; found guilty in 2000 of sodomy with his wife's driver
  • 2004: Supreme Court overturns sodomy conviction; Anwar emerges as opposition leader
  • Mar 2008: Ruling coalition narrowly wins election; opposition makes unprecedented gains
  • Aug 2008: Anwar charged with sodomy again
  • Jan 2012: Acquitted by High Court
  • May 2013: Leads opposition to best-ever election performance; wins popular vote
  • Feb 2015: Jailed for sodomy after 2012 acquittal overturned in March 2014

But some analysts say support for the opposition comes from disenchantment with the current government - and is not a vote of confidence for the PR itself.

Ibrahim Suffian of the independent polling group Merdeka Center says the opposition has not managed to form a shadow cabinet and has failed to articulate clear policy on issues such as the economy and ethnic relations.

Divisions also exist between the parties and within them. Last year, PKR members fought publicly over the leadership of Malaysia's wealthiest state of Selangor.

PAS leaders in Kelantan, meanwhile, have been pushing to implement the Islamic penal code called hudud, which gives punishments such as cutting off hands for theft. The discussion has divided both the party and the wider alliance.

Former PKR deputy president and political analyst Chandra Muzaffar says the opposition needs to resolve its internal problems and bridge the ideological divide between Islamic fundamentalists in PAS and DAP members who believe Malaysia should emphasise its multi-ethnic and multi-faith roots.

"It's the sort of thing that has caused them problems in the past," says Mr Muzaffar, adding that if unresolved the issue could split the alliance.

Mr Anwar is widely seen as the only person who can arbitrate between the three parties.


Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Major protests took place after the 2013 polls, in which the opposition won the popular vote

At the recent forum on the PR's future, opposition members downplayed the hudud issue and emphasised co-operation.

"As long as these things are thrashed out in a democratic process I don't think that would hinder the coalition," said PAS MP Mujahid Yusof Rawa.

PKR Vice-President Chua Tian Chang, commonly known as Tian Chua, said the alliance had far bigger problems to worry about.

"Malaysia has not graduated from one-party dictatorship," he said. The real struggle, he said, was moving towards a fully fledged democracy where a different political party could be in government.

Human rights also had to be respected, he said - a reference to the government critics and opposition leaders, including him, who have been investigated under the controversial sedition act. Most recently, police arrested a prominent cartoonist who criticised the jailing of Mr Anwar.

"All the other issues are just a diversion in order to derail the real change and because we are debating on false issues, like race and religion," he said.

However, activist Hishamuddin Rais called the PR's goal to unseat the governing coalition a "dream".

He was part of the Bersih movement for fair elections that called for an end to gerrymandered constituencies, which meant that the PR won only 40% of parliamentary seats despite winning 51% of the popular vote in the 2013 election.

"The whole game has been set up to make sure that there is no way… the (governing coalition) will lose," he said, to loud applause from the forum.

Still, Mr Chandra believes the opposition could gain support if the government struggles to handle the drop in oil revenues and the introduction of an unpopular consumption tax in April.

'More dangerous'

But there is still a major leadership void. The recent death of the alliance's biggest supporter and spiritual leader of PAS, Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, is seen as another step back for the opposition and has delayed a meeting between the three parties.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The death of Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, seen here with Mr Anwar in 2005, is a blow to the alliance

The alliance has not yet announced Mr Anwar's successor. There is widespread speculation in local media that given the gaps between the PAS and the DAP, the candidate will likely be plucked from Mr Anwar's own party.

One name that continues to surface is the current chief minister of Selangor state, Mohamed Azmin Ali.

Whoever they pick, they are unlikely to match the 67-year-old who has played such a key role in Malaysia's political landscape. And even though Mr Anwar is imprisoned, he has not disappeared.

Activist Ms Ambiga believes the jailed leader will still be a rallying point for the opposition.

"There's a palpable level of disgust of the jailing of Anwar Ibrahim," she told the forum. "Anwar is far more dangerous inside than outside."

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