This year will be a defining year for Malaysian politics. Analysts expect the 14th General Election (GE14) to be held in the second half of this year, although it is due only in August 2018.
For the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, the election is a test of its ability to recover from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) saga and whether the cooperation between ethnic-based parties — United Malays National Organisation (Umno), Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian Indian Congress—remain relevant in this modern day and age.
Throughout 2016, Umno has increasingly played up the racial and religious cards more prominently and is edging closer to the Islamic opposition party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).
At the most recent Umno General Assembly, Prime Minister Najib Razak warned the Malays that if the party loses the upcoming election, the secularist, Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) would rule Malaysia.
On the other hand, the election is a yardstick for the opposition’s unity and competence. GE14 is the opposition’s best chance of beating BN, after it made huge gains in the last election by narrowly beating the ruling party in popular votes.
The opposition has almost shot itself in the foot, with the Pakatan Rakyat pact — which did so well in the 2013 election — splitting up in 2015 over PAS’ push for Islamic criminal law in Kelantan.
With PAS out of the picture, and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in jail for sodomy, the new Pakatan Harapan bloc was not seen as one which could effectively challenge BN despite the challenges faced by the ruling coalition.
That is, until elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad aligned himself with the opposition late last year. The year 2017 will, therefore, be a test of 90-year old Dr Mahathir’s popularity and relevance in Malaysian politics. The opposition’s failure could also mean the end of Dr Mahathir’s era.
Even though Dr Mahathir stepped down as prime minister in 2003, in truth, he has not quit politics.
He has continued to voice his opinions against the government and, in 2009, played an instrumental role in asking then-prime minister Abdullah Badawi to step down.
Last year, Dr Mahathir became the first former prime minister in Malaysia’s history to form an opposition party, called PPBM.
Today, some opposition members regard Dr Mahathir as their best hope of toppling BN. It is also ironic that Dr Mahathir is the man tasked with saving an opposition coalition that had started out trying to overthrow him.
Dr Mahathir’s efforts to reunite the opposition have made some inroads, but his authoritarian past continues to haunt him.
Last year, Dr Mahathir shocked many Malaysians by attending the DAP convention and sitting beside his former nemesis, Mr Lim Kit Siang. Some Malaysians welcome this unexpected reconciliation between Dr Mahathir and the DAP leader.
However, one only needs to view past YouTube videos featuring Dr Mahathir’s criticisms of Mr Lim to understand the massive turnaround made by the former premier.
These YouTube videos are living archival materials that record how quickly Malaysian politicians can jump ship and change tack, out of political expediency.
At one time, Dr Mahathir also described Anwar as morally unfit to be Malaysia’s prime minister.
Anwar was deputy premier and heir apparent to Dr Mahathir until he was sacked in 1998 by his boss over political differences.
Dr Mahathir is less critical of Anwar now, and went to the High Court to support his former protege’s attempt to block the National Security Council Act.
Both men even shook hands. Malaysian politicians can seem to bury the hatchet quicker than many Malaysians. Some of those who supported Anwar’s 1998 Reformasi movement are upset by the Mahathir-Anwar reconciliation.
Dr Mahathir’s colourful relation with the opposition is only one of many challenges facing his new party, PPBM.
The new-born party has already seen several key leaders quitting. Dr Mahathir’s close ally, Mr Khairuddin Abu Hassan, left the party even though he has been the key person campaigning against Mr Najib’s handling of the 1MDB issue.
In another shocking episode, former Senator Ezam Mohd Nor also left PPBM weeks after joining it. Mr Ezam was a key figure in the 1998 Reformasi movement against Dr Mahathir, but quit to re-join Umno in 2008.
In October 2016, he left Umno and joined PPBM, only to leave again.
Umno leaders have been quick to pounce on Mr Ezam’s departure from PPBM to point out that the party has internal problems.
The challenge for PPBM now is not to be seen as another Umno. So any leadership tussle within the party is unhelpful to its cause. Time is not on the party’s side if it is serious about consolidating the opposition pact to challenge Umno.
So far, the party has yet to settle on several pressing issues, such as a common ideology for the opposition; how to prevent three-cornered fights against BN in the election; and its response on race and religion issues.
Malaysians will not consider the opposition as serious contenders to form the federal government unless it can agree on a shadow Cabinet — a problem Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat could not resolve before it was disbanded.
At this moment, the opposition is struggling to name a potential Prime Minister: Some want Anwar, while others say it could be former deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin.
With the uncertainties facing the opposition, analysts may be correct in saying the election may come sooner than expected, because snap polls mean BN will have a higher chance of winning.
A convincing BN victory will only mean Dr Mahathir’s full retirement from politics, because BN will play up the notion that voters have rejected the statesman.