Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government: A tightrope walk
The article has been authored by Rahul Mishra, director, Centre for ASEAN Regionalism Universiti Malaya (CARUM), and coordinator, European Studies Programme, Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Malaysia. He tweets @rahulmishr_
Putting a month-long political uncertainty and speculation to rest, Prime Minister (PM) Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim won the vote of confidence at Dewan Rakyat (lower house) earlier this week. Tabled by the Deputy Prime Minister Fadillah Yusof and seconded by the other deputy PM, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the motion succeeded with a simple voice vote giving the Anwar Ibrahim government the much-needed needed political comfort by steering it clear of any further uncertainties.
The vote of confidence is seen by many as a cakewalk following the December 16 Memorandum of Understanding signed by the leaders of five political coalitions and parties in the Anwar government.
Malaysian domestic politics slipped into a phase of political uncertainty following the November 19 general elections that saw a hung parliament with none of the political coalitions being able to secure a simple majority of 112 seats in the Dewan Rakyat. The juggling of political permutations and combinations eventually paved the way for Anwar Ibrahim – one of Malaysia’s most seasoned and respected politicians – as the PM.
King Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, Malaysia’s current Agong (constitutional monarch), appointed Anwar's multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan (PH) bloc into an unsettling alliance with old rival Barisan Nasional (BN), which is known for its tilt to the majority Bumiputra (Malay Muslim community) community and privileges accorded to them.
The opposition's long-time leader Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as Malaysia's tenth prime minister on November 24. It was a remarkable turn of events for a former deputy PM who had to spend more than 10 years behind bars following convictions for sodomy and corruption on the basis of what he alleges were politically driven allegations. The 75-year-unity old's government is the outcome of his astounding political saga.
Anwar presently leads a coalition government made up of BN, Warisan, Muda, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), and his own PH. A 28-member cabinet made up of parliamentarians from parties with diverse interests and ideologies were appointed by Anwar on December 2. Having a broad-based political coalition has also meant that politicians such as Tengku Zafrul Aziz and Zambry Abdul Kadir, who, despite not being elected, were given cabinet berths, demonstrating how Anwar’s choices will be constrained. But then, politics is all about compromise.
The writing on the wall for PM Anwar is a relentless effort to strike a balance between his party’s political mission and vision and reconcile differences with that of the other members of the ruling political coalition.
Anwar has a reformist agenda that is backed by parties like the Democratic Action Party (DAP), whose leaders and constituents are primarily of Chinese and Indian ethnicity. The Pakatan bloc, which strives to work for a more egalitarian, inclusive, and multicultural Malaysia, saw DAP win the most seats of any party. Conflicts between the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-BN coalition's founding and most influential member, and its bitter foe PH are likely to keep cropping up. After years of ruling the government, BN is still dealing with the fallout from their unexpected, terrible defeat in GE15, and it will be daunting for them to take the back seat. BN leaders will now have to cooperate with their dreaded opponent and vice versa despite their recent policy of "No Anwar, no DAP."
Furthermore, PH and UMNO are at odds over recent corruption scandals that have afflicted senior UMNO officials, including Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the party's current chairman and the deputy PM. Another concern is the upcoming UMNO General Assembly next year, which will elect new party leaders. Zahid Hamidi, considered the mastermind behind the UMNO alliance with PH, may not retain his position as chairman as a result of internal bickering.
Anwar will also need to keep in mind that several states may go for elections in 2023. He must bargain with UMNO and other parties in order to stop the state elections from having an impact on the federal government. Anwar must also stop attempts by the opposition to discredit the PH-BN partnership.
Anwar's opponents will likely leverage the racial and religious divisions that grew during GE15 to discredit his government. The next five years will be crucial in defining Malaysia's future because of how divided the country is now more than ever. Even the tiniest suggestion of a policy that hurts the Malays or favours other ethnic groups would prompt the opposition to accuse his government of putting the majority Malay interests in harm’s way. The PH government may anticipate PN, whose principal allies are the Malay-centric party, Bersatu and Islamic-centric party, PAS to articulate this position with greater strength. A closer look at the December 16 MoA showcases how careful Anwar is about this issue.
Criticised for having just one Malaysian-Indian minister Sivakumar Varatharaju Naidu in his first cabinet announcement, Anwar was quick to make amends to include a broad-based representation of minority ethnic communities. Anwar’s inclusive approach isn’t just confined to racial inclusivity. East Malaysia, a region that has long been underrepresented in politics and government in Malaysia, was granted important positions. Making Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusof the deputy PM is the most notable of these. Eastern Malaysian MPs secured three important portfolios that are significant drivers of the country's Gross Domestic Product: works and infrastructure, tourism, and plantation industries and commodities. This suggests that the new administration will prioritise East Malaysia, as the states of Sabah and Sarawak have long advocated. This should ensure that parties from East Malaysia support this administration for the duration of its term.
In one of his first statements as PM, Anwar pledged to uphold Islam as the country's official religion while advocating "a Malaysia for all Malaysians," and it appeared as though he was already treading that tightrope.The article has been authored by Rahul Mishra, director, Centre for ASEAN Regionalism Universiti Malaya (CARUM), and coordinator, European Studies Programme, Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Malaysia. He tweets @rahulmishr_