KUALA LUMPUR — Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the largest political party in the Malaysian parliament, has the most to lose with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad extending an open invitation to Malay politicians from the opposition camp to defect to his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), observers said.
They noted that Dr Mahathir’s move to strengthen PPBM, of which he is the chairman, will weaken PKR’s stature in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, a pact of four parties that dethroned scandal-ridden Barisan Nasional in the last general election.
Associate Professor Ahmad Martadha Mohamed said the rise of Bersatu could even hurt Mr Anwar Ibrahim’s chances of taking over as prime minister. The handover agreement, despite repeated verbal reassurances, had not been etched in stone.
“People within his own party are already saying this might not happen. PKR has the largest share of votes in PH but this might be threatened if Bersatu recruits enough people to shift the balance of power,” said the analyst from Universiti Utara Malaysia’s College of Law, Government and International Studies.
Bolstering PH’s political power aside, Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, interpreted Dr Mahathir’s move to accept new members as a strategy to strengthen his hands against Mr Anwar’s camp.
“This will, of course, rankle the latter, but it remains to be seen as to how much of a ruckus the latter could raise, as its support seems to be dwindling by the day,” he said.
Bersatu’s 26 seats have doubled from the initial 13 seats right after the May polls last year. This growth was due to defectors who switched their allegiance from the opposition, or the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in particular.
Well aware that Bersatu – formed only in September 2016 – lacks strong grassroots support and party machinery, Dr Mahathir has been throwing the party doors wide open for UMNO politicians.
Notable figures who had abandoned UMNO for Bersatu include former international trade and industry minister Mustapa Mohamed, former domestic trade minister Mr Hamzah Zainuddin, and former UMNO young women wing’s chief Mas Ermieyati Samsudin.
Another wave of opposition politicians defecting to Bersatu is anticipated with Dr Mahathir inviting all Malay parties, including UMNO and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), to join Bersatu in the name of Malay unity last Friday (Jul 5), adding that potential for Malay parties to win elections would decline as more parties are formed.
He clarified on Monday that his intention was to have Malays united under the existing parties instead of forming new parties. The four existing Malay parties – UMNO, PAS, Bersatu and Amanah – were “enough”, he said.
Dr Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at Sunway University, said the likelihood of a second wave of defections from UMNO to Bersatu is high if UMNO seems to be heading towards a dead end.
“Whether it’s because UMNO cannot disassociate itself from the corrupt leaders, or UMNO has been too dependent on PAS (given the recent political pact) that it loses more grounds among mainstream Malays,” he said.
PKR NOT CONSIDERED A MALAY PARTY
Professor Dr Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid from Universiti Sains Malaysia noted that Dr Mahathir had intentionally left out PKR – a multiracial but Malay-dominated party – in his Monday comments as if to disqualify PKR from the selection of parties that can be considered by the Malays.
“While he wants to strengthen his party in PH, unfortunately, it is also to marginalise PKR, which is not fair to the Malays in PKR,” the political science professor said.
Dr Mahathir’s open call for the Malays to join Bersatu would be alarming for other PH component parties, but the reality is that PH needs to command Malay support in the Malay-majority country, Prof Ahmad Fauzi said.
“It will worry strategists in PKR and DAP, but they also realise that they risk alienating more Malays if they reject Dr Mahathir’s proposal outright at the moment. They realised last year that they need Malay support if they want to make Malaysia Baru legitimate.”
Concurring, Dr Oh said while PH component parties do not like new members to dilute their political powers, they also need newcomers to strengthen their hands against UMNO and PAS.
“So it is this often painful balancing of doubts and necessities that are taking place in PH when it comes to this matter.”