A pact between Malaysia’s biggest opposition parties is set to pose a key challenge to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s multiracial coalition that has sought to win support from the Malay Muslim majority.
United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO, the largest party in the alliance that ruled the country for six decades before being ousted last year, and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, signed a unity charter to formalize their alliance on Saturday. Combined, they hold a quarter of the seats in parliament, while Mahathir’s coalition holds more than half.
The PAS-UMNO pact is likely to result in a formal coalition before the next vote due by 2023 and pose a “credible threat” to the government, said Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, an associate professor at Universiti Utara Malaysia. “In fact, in the coming months we could see the government roll out more policies to improve the livelihood of the Malays to get their support,” he said.
The ruling Pakatan Harapan rose to power last May promising to crack down on corruption and move away from race-based policies. Discontent over former leader Najib Razak’s alleged role in the 1MDB scandal led enough Malaysians to vote for Mahathir. Now the coalition, composed of disparate groups including an ethnic Chinese party and a Malay nationalist party, needs to shore up enough support from ethnic Malays who account for 70% of the population.
“The danger is that the government may roll back on crucial political reforms or totally abandon its progressive ideas for the sake of appeasing the majority,” said Adib Zalkapli, a director at BowerGroupAsia’s Malaysia office. “On the other hand, the PAS-UMNO alliance is undermining the multiracial Barisan Nasional so this may make it difficult for BN to recover. It’s a big risk that they are taking.”
Still, an alliance between PAS and UMNO that develops into an electoral coalition may lead to Malaysia becoming a two-party system with solid checks and balances, Ahmad Martadha said. “It could be a sign of the maturation of Malaysia’s politics.”