Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has been given the green light by members of his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party to form an electoral pact with the country’s main opposition, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an alliance that many believe, even in the form of an informal agreement, would ensure Najib’s return to power.
“[The door] is very much open, in terms of having electoral cooperation with PAS. We have given the full mandate to the president,” UMNO’s information chief Annuar Musa told reporters after an event in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, according to the Malaysian Insight news site.
Annuar did not elaborate on how a pact would affect the two parties’ approaches to the upcoming general election, which by law must take place on or before 24 August 2018.
A formal pact between the two rival parties would be the first of its kind in history.
In May, PAS ended its ten-year alliance with jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the basis of the previous opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, over disagreements over the implementation of the Islamic criminal system, or hudud, in Malaysia.
A surge in conservative Islamic sentiment in Malaysia has helped PAS, which wants to bring Malaysia in line with a stricter interpretation of Islam, become the country’s main opposition party.
Prior to PAS’ breakaway from the opposition coalition, Malay-majority seats in the election were contested by just two parties – Najib’s UMNO and one of either Anwar’s PKR or the Malaysian United Indigenous Party.
However, PAS’ refusal to join the opposition coalition has turned a two-horse race into a three-cornered fight.
According to James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute, the two parties are less likely to sign a formal agreement – which would require UMNO to share its seats with PAS – than reach an understanding whereby PAS fielded candidates in select constituencies to prevent the other opposition parties winning seats.
“My take is that there will be no formal electoral pact but an understanding that PAS will put up a candidate in all the Malay-majority seats (about 110-120), thus dividing the opposition vote… If this were to happen, it is almost certain that UMNO will return to power,” he wrote in an email to Southeast Asia Globe.
“For UMNO, it’s about staying in power despite massive corruption allegations. For PAS, it’s about preventing the non-Muslims and non-Malays from capturing power.”
That such a pact has been mooted is indicative of the direction in which Malaysian society is heading, Chin added.
“It says [that], after six decades of independence, we are seeing the rise of political Islam, and [that] race politics is still [the] dominant force in Malaysian politics,” he said.