The grim endgame that appears increasingly certain to put paid to the 50-year reign of Malaysia’s National Front, or Barisan Nasional, and its ill-starred prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, came one step closer to reality Wednesday when lawmakers announced that they would move a no-confidence vote in Parliament against Badawi, further eroding public confidence in the besieged premier.
Leaders of the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), with two lawmakers in the Dewan Rakyat, or federal parliament, said they would make the move next Monday. Speaking with reporters in Kota Kinabalu, the Sabah capital, the party listed an uncontrolled influx of illegal immigrants, rising energy prices, what they regard as the Barisan's poor management of the country's resources, and finally a loss of confidence in Badawi himself.
The SAPP announcement was almost immediately repudiated by the party's deputy president, Raymond Tan, who said he didn't support the move and that the party's supreme council hadn't given its permission for it. Badawi hmself said the move, by SAPP president Yong Teck Lee, was motivated by personal greed. Other parties within the Barisan said the no confidence motion was unlikely to take place.
Nonetheless, if nothing else the controversy illustrates the continuing chaos in Malaysian politics. Falling investor confidence drove the value of the ringgit down to 3.261 to the US dollar after a two-day rally. Rising inflation has also spooked investors, with the Kuala Lumpur Composite Index falling to a near three-month low as the power struggle preoccupies the government and top business leaders, many of them from the long-time ruling Malay elite put in place by the New Economic Policy, an affirmative action program started in the wake of 1969 riots that has been criticized for creating an inefficient and rent-seeking class.
The big question is how long Badawi can survive. One Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst with close relations to the disgruntled former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, said the loss of the SAPP seats is not a death knell despite the fact he might wish it otherwise. It appears that Badawi can weather the immediate storm, but his departure from the premiership is increasingly certain.
Badawi has offered to step aside “in good time” to allow his deputy, Najib Tun Razak, to take over. But the chances of the perennial challenger Tenku Razaleigh Hamzah may well have been strengthened by the current turmoil and concerns about Najib’s viability in the wake of a series of scandals. Nonetheless, the SAPP statement is regarded as an ultimatum before the party potentially defects to the People's Alliance, or Pakatan Rakyat, the coalition led by onetime Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
In recent weeks, the SAPP’s criticism of the Barisan has become louder and more frequent. Before, given the Barisan’s previous power, such a move would likely have led to expulsion from the coalition. But since March 8 national elections in which the Barisan lost its two-thirds majority in the parliament for the first time in the country’s history, disgruntled and previously sidelined politicians are discovering their potential marketability both to the Barisan and the opposition.
To wrest federal power from the Barisan, Pakatan needs another 30 lawmakers. Now, it has 82 against the Barisan's 140. With SAPP's two joining its fray, the number required is down to 28. In Sabah, the Barisan holds 24 out of the 25 federal seats. Over the past few months, speculation has been rife that lawmakers from this state would be among the first to defect. But Tengku Razaleigh, the 70-year-old perpetual prime minister-wannabe, told reporters that the state would back him in his challenge to be prime minister.
Moreover in recent weeks, Pakatan has suggested that even those in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) — the largest ethnic party, which leads the Barisan — and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the second largest ethnic party in the coalition, might be induced to cross party lines. Both parties have vehemently denied the possibility.
Certainly, Badawi has been assiduous in attempting to shore up his Sabahan base. He visited the state earlier this month to distribute more goodies including abolishment of the Sabah Federal Development Department, which oversees federal funds allocated for development. To control illegal immigration from Indonesia an the Philippines, a decades-old irritation for both Sabah and Sarawak, he has established a high-powered Cabinet committee under Deputy Prime Minister Najib.
But the assault on the Barisan has been relentless. On Wednesday the Election Court nullified the victory of a state lawmaker in the state of Perlis, possibly encouraging more to dispute election results. Opposition parties have perennially charged that the electoral process is fraudulent, often pointing to the dead who are still on the Election Commission's registry of voters and accusing the Barisan of buying votes with cash.
The Perlis UMNO candidate, Abdullah Hassan won with a narrow majority of 3,384 votes, just 149 more than his opponent, Hashim Jasin, the two-term incumbent from the fundamentalist Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS). Hashim charged that Election Commission tallies show he had actually won by 47 votes. The seat is now likely up for a by-election. Disgruntlement with Badawi could create a groundswell vote for PAS, a political analyst said. UMNO branch elections start in July, with all sides watching closely to see if a faction closely identified with the former prime minister, who ostentatiously quit the party last month, will gain traction at Badawi's expense.
In the meantime, Anwar Ibrahim, who has publicly said he would take over as premier in September, is putting additional pressure on Badawi. The country's highest court agreed Monday to hear a legal challenge over Anwar's abrupt sacking in 1998 as deputy prime minister and finance minister and ultimate jailing at the behest of Mahathir, Anwar’s onetime mentor and now bitter enemy. Given the political nature of Malaysia’s courts, it is difficult to believe the agreement to hear the near decade-old case does not have political overtones. At the same time Badawi is seeking to defend himself against Anwar’s challenge, he is fighting a rear-guard action against Mahathir, who is leading the charge to depose him as prime minister. The political outlook for Malaysia appears to hold considerable potential for chaos.