Making it easy for Mahathir
Mar 8th 2001 | KUALA LUMPUR

DO MALAYSIA’S opposition parties really hope to run the country one day? Their recent behaviour hardly makes them seem serious. Mahathir Mohamad, who has ruled Malaysia since 1981, is beset by a disgruntled Malay majority and criticism in his own ranks. He continues to offer opponents open goals, such as his decision last week to restart a controversial dam in East Malaysia, on terms that make less sense than the original ones. Yet instead of articulating a convincing alternative government, two of the three main opposition parties are caught up in civil war. With enemies like these, Dr Mahathir can afford to have few friends.

The row in the opposition broke out in late February, when several disgruntled cast-offs from the Democratic Action Party (DAP) applied to join its coalition partner, the Keadilan party of Wan Azizah Ismail, wife of Dr Mahathir’s imprisoned former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. The former DAP members—all from Penang, a DAP stronghold—resigned after a row with its autocratic leader, Lim Kit Siang. Although party members change loyalties all the time in Malaysia, the latest migration has left many DAP members livid.

By accepting the troublemakers, they complain, Keadilan has broken an agreement among members of the opposition alliance not to accept each other’s renegades. Mr Lim has vowed to boycott events that are jointly sponsored by the DAP and Keadilan. Behind the personalities and the bickering lies a fundamental rift between the parties—one that threatens the entire logic of the opposition alliance.

That alliance was formed to counter the ethnic arithmetic of the ruling coalition, which has been led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) since independence in 1957, mostly in coalition with the Malay Chinese Association and other ethnic groups. In the 1999 general election, the newly created Keadilan party presented itself as the glue between its two partners—the Chinese-based DAP and the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), which do not otherwise have much in common. In the event, Keadilan won fewer seats than either the DAP or PAS. But its leaders remain convinced that it is the linchpin of the alliance, and that it must increase its role if the opposition is to take power. Such ideas do not sit well with the DAP, Malaysia’s biggest opposition party until the 1999 election, when it was supplanted by PAS, the main beneficiary of all those unhappy Malays.

Ironically, one of the most troublesome events for the opposition arose from a victory, in a prominent by-election in Lunas late last year. By picking up a local-assembly seat in Dr Mahathir’s home state of Kedah, the opposition proved that it could put up a good fight in a well-defended UMNO district, and showed Dr Mahathir to be a growing liability. But before they took on UMNO, Keadilan and the DAP had fought a bitter battle between themselves over which candidate to run, which Keadilan eventually won.

Far from uniting them, the opposition’s victory has set them at each other throats. Keadilan members now argue that they have proved themselves right. They say that their moderate Malay base and their multi-ethnic ambitions, make theirs the ideal party to take on UMNO. DAP leaders counter that it was Dr Mahathir’s weakness and the appeal of the alliance as a whole that allowed it to win Lunas. Lim Guan Eng, the DAP leader’s son, insists that the party will fight hard over any division of seats in the future. “We are ready to take Keadilan on in a three-way fight—anywhere,” he says. “Then let’s see who gets the most votes.” The DAP looks set to fight Keadilan in elections in Sarawak later this year.

Dr Mahathir could hardly have hoped for a better gift. A huge number of young Malaysians will be eligible to vote for the first time in the next general election. A disciplined opposition might hope to win another big chunk of UMNO seats and weaken the ruling coalition. But perhaps UMNO’s opponents are happy to remain out of power.