ANWAR Ibrahim’s letter stating his withdrawal as the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance’s de facto candidate for the role of prime minister was a shock to many of PH’s top leadership, as the coalition struggles over a leadership lineup in which Dr Mahathir Mohamad is said to be pushing for a central role.
In a statement released from prison last Saturday, Anwar said the “friction (over who will be prime minister) is exhausting (the opposition), as the final decision lies with the people in the general election”.
PKR secretary-general Saifuddin Nasution told Singapore’s The Straits Times daily that Anwar’s statement was primarily aimed at signaling his opposition to his former mentor’s bid to lead PH.
“(Anwar) does not want the issue of who becomes PM or who should take a lead role to be the focus. He favours the old structure (in the opposition) where everyone is equal,” said Saifuddin.
In recent weeks, Mahathir has been lobbying top opposition leaders to accept a plan to install his Malay-based Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) as the dominant force in PH and to make him and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin its top two leaders, according to the Straits Times report.
While the opposition has made significant inroads among urban voters, the bulk of the country’s rural Malays has traditionally supported Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government, led by Umno.
In private meetings with opposition leaders, the 91-year-old Mahathir has argued that in order to break Umno’s stranglehold on rural Malays – who are largely still behind Prime Minister Najib Razak – the opposition alliance has to be recalibrated and its component parties must rally behind an ethnic Malay-based party and top leadership from the Malay community.
Several PKR and DAP leaders privately noted that Mahathir’s plan could help to re-energise the opposition, which is still smarting from the recent pullout of Islamis party PAS from the alliance.
“What would change the election outcome is the breaking of Umno’s stranglehold on the rural Malay vote. Mahathir and his party have the capacity (to do it) but whether it happens is another question,” said a senior PKR leader, who also believes Mahathir’s strategy could help combat voter fatigue.
However, there remain top leaders within PH who are skeptical of Mahathir’s plans, and suspicious of what they see as a move to hijack the opposition to further personal political ambition.
The opposition won nearly 52% of the popular vote in the May 2013 election, but secured control of only 89 constituencies out of the 222 parliamentary seats contested.
Opposition leaders who view the Mahathir strategy positively believe that the electoral system is stacked against the alliance unless it can break Umno’s stranglehold on the rural Malay vote.
While they acknowledge that giving Mahathir a lead role could cost the opposition votes from non-Malay communities, they would also like to believe that a swing in Malay votes in favour of the opposition would deliver victories in parliamentary seats that they had narrowly lost in 2013.
“We need to use him as much as he wants to use us,” the senior PKR member told The Straits Times.