Will Barisan Nasional be a good opposition

On April 14th, many people gathered on the street in front of the main courthouse in Kuala Lumpur. They were watched by about 2,000 police officers, fully equipped with trucks, water cannons, signs and batons. It was the day of the announcement of the verdict in the trial against Anwar Ibrahim and riots were expected from the "reformasi" demonstrators. They remained peaceful, but the police finally cracked down, as always, with arrests and beatings of protesters, accompanied by incitement to government propaganda about the opposition trying to bring Malaysia to its knees. For three days there were isolated cases of tires and rubbish being burned on the streets, which the mainstream press covered at length and width. Of course, she blamed the opposition parties for instigating such acts of violence, where no one was injured and little damage caused, while they claimed it was the work of Agent Provokateurs.

Since Anwar's arrest in September 1998, street demonstrations, initially regular and later sporadic, have marked, for some observers, a turning point in Malaysia's political culture. Most of the demonstrators were and are ethnic Malay, many of them young and some of them students. Although the demonstrations were largely confined to Kuala Lumpur, they are seen as the tip of the iceberg of resentment and disillusionment with Mahathir, UMNO Baru and the government in general. Significantly, this resentment and disillusionment is predominantly carried by the Malays and Malaysia has not experienced any demonstrations of this kind since 1969.

The search for other sources of information is also an expression of this disillusionment. In addition to the observed, more intensive use of the Internet and greater dissemination of publications by the opposition, participation in ceramahs (public speeches) by the opposition is very high. 90,000 people are said to have come to such an event in Kelantan and various others around the country are reported to have had numbers in excess of 20,000. The "election campaign" for the next elections has practically begun, especially after Anwar Ibrahim's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, along with supporters of Anwar, helped found a new political party, Parti Keadilan Negara (PKN), on April 4th announced her as President. Anuar Tahir is general secretary, Chandra Muzaffar, former longtime president of Aliran and president of JUST, deputy president, and Mohamad Ezam Noor, Anuar's former political secretary, youth secretary of the party. With the claim to be a multi-ethnic party that stands for the principles of justice and equality, it was founded with Anwar's blessing and the fanfare of the music of Star War.

The party became a member of the two existing coalition groups that tried to unite opposition forces against the government. Gagasan Rakyat, composed of opposition parties, including the PAS and DAP, and a number of non-governmental organizations are working on position papers that will outline the need for and ways forward for change in Malaysia. Its chairman is Tian Chua, who was arrested twice during demonstrations and brutally beaten by the police. Gerak, a coalition formed immediately after Anwar Ibrahim's arrest, has many of the same people as members, but is led by the PAS. Above all, she has organized ceramahs, at which many and different opposition speakers have their say.

In the face of the next elections, which must be held by May 2000 at the latest but, according to widespread rumors, will likely take place in September, there is a great deal of optimism among some and suspicious pragmatism among others. The optimists claim there is a good chance that the opposition will win the elections, even though the government colition, Barisan Nasional (BN), has won every election since independence and only once with less than a 2/3 majority in parliament .

The widespread disillusionment with the government in all ethnic groups speaks in favor of the optimists. The disillusion is centered on the DAP's treatment of Anwar and Lim Guang Eng. This also includes the authoritarian style of Mahathir, the undermining of public institutions such as the police and the judiciary, the nepotism and cronyism that characterize the government's economic policy, corruption within the government and the public sector and of course the government's failure to take any responsibility for it wanting to take over the economic crisis.

The less optimistic find that although a large part of public opinion is directed against the government, it is not so easy to translate this mood into votes and parliamentary seats in an election. The apparatus at her disposal, the manipulation of the media and the electoral process itself will make it very difficult to crack her 2/3 majority at all. They foresee an election campaign with lots of dirty tricks that the government will put millions into. The boom on the stock market is said to be a prelude to this.

The state of the opposition parties is also pointed out. While the PAS has a strong machine base and could win some of the Malay constituencies, the other parties do not. The new PKN still has to set up an apparatus at the basic level. The Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) has always suffered from a lack of organization. The Democratic Action Party (DAP), a predominantly urban, Chinese-oriented party led by Lim Kit Siang, is weakening itself by its own severe internal crisis. Leave of absence and expulsion of seasoned party members, including 12 district chairmen and other senior officials at board level, have been the order of the day in the past few months. Some DAP members have even founded a new party.

The crisis in the DAP is in part due to a recurring discussion about Lim Kit Siang's leadership style. But the debate about how the DAP should position itself in the next elections has also contributed to this. Many in the DAP are very skeptical about a common platform with PAS. They say that such cooperation would only damage DAP's attractiveness to potential voters, because the basic position of PAS to want to introduce an Islamic state is unacceptable for the DAP and the Chinese voters.

For some, this shows that the closer the election date approaches, the faster the ruptures in any opposition coalition will become apparent. The establishment of PKN itself caused difficulties for the other opposition parties. Until it was founded, PAS was in the fortunate position of being the most important, Malay-oriented opposition party with a good apparatus, which was quickly able to accept many of the Anwar supporters from UMNO Baru and reformasi supporters. 40 to 50 parliamentary seats were expected in the elections. But with the founding of the PKN, many reformasi supporters left PAS to join the new party and of course PKN will use PAS to win the same votes from the Malays. The public comparison of PKNs with Semangat 46, also a spin-off from UMNO Baru in 1988, which formed a temporary coalition with PAS before returning to UMNO Baru, by PAS spokesmen gives a clear signal: Do not trust this new party.

The DAP also accuses PKN of poaching its supporters and members. The entry of the former DAP MP for Kuching in the federal parliament, Sim Kwang Yang, and other Chinese led to some biting remarks from the DAP leadership. It is widely believed that sooner or later the DAP will break away from the opposition coalitions and go its own way.

The breaking point will probably be the agreement on the allocation of the electoral districts for the candidates in the next elections, because in Malaysia elections are based on pure majority voting. Such an agreement has not yet taken place and the opposition is seriously behind because the election campaign for possible candidates has not even started. PAS is determined to run for as many seats in Malay constituencies as possible, and DAP has said it will run for every seat in the city. How should the interests of PKN be taken into account, not to speak of smaller parties like the PRM.