Umno ratcheted up the racial rhetoric last weekend, highlighting concerns within the ruling party that its grip on the crucial Malay vote bank could slip after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad formally took charge of the opposition last Friday.
The former prime minister led the dominant Malay party for 22 years before retiring in 2003 and, despite misgivings from civil society, the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance aims to use the 92-year-old’s influence to break Umno’s stranglehold on the Malay community that makes up the majority in more than half of the parliamentary districts.
With a general election due in a year’s time, politicians and analysts expect to see increased pandering to Malay-Muslim insecurities in the coming months.
On Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said polls would be held after September, amid speculation that Prime Minister Najib Razak would call an election after the Aug 19-30 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.
PH comprises Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Dr Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara.
Umno got the ball rolling immediately last weekend, insisting that Dr Mahathir was only a puppet, and that the DAP held the real power in the PH as it had the most lawmakers among the four PH partners.
“This is how the opposition clouds the matter. If DAP is not the leader, they are pretending. How can the party with the least seats become the leader?” said Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Shahidan Kassim, referring to the fact that PPBM has only one MP.
Rural and Regional Development Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob also warned that “we Malays will be split into three… DAP will have the most seats and, constitutionally, they are entitled to decide who will be prime minister”.
Datuk Seri Najib took a more nuanced approach by asking his former boss, Dr Mahathir, to take a clear stance on the repeated charges of sexual misconduct against Anwar, who is currently in jail after a 2015 conviction for sodomy, considered highly taboo for Muslims.
“Does Dr Mahathir still stand by his 1998 statement accusing Anwar of unnatural acts? He even said Anwar was a leader without honour, and cannot lead the country,” said Mr Najib, referring to what Dr Mahathir had said when he sacked Anwar, who was deputy prime minister, that year.
DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang dismissed the attacks, mocking Umno for panicking over PH’s new leadership structure, where top positions are taken by Malay leaders. Anwar is de facto leader, his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is the president and Dr Mahathir, the chairman.
“We can now see a new carefully crafted propaganda strategy – to run down the Mahathir-Anwar reconciliation,” said Mr Lim.