Anwar Ibrahim is now prime minister. After GE15, he was guided into a “unity government” which he put together with a hotchpotch of political parties.
Adversaries became friends and they learned how to work with one another.
We observed the first 100 days and examined the budget looking for hints of what this government stands for.
The answers haven’t come yet. Most see just a steady continuation of government, similar to governments we had before.
However, six states are facing their own elections in a few months, and will the arrest and charging of Muhyiddin play any role?
Polarized and divisive nation
Muhyiddin’s arrest and charging has occurred in front of a much bigger backdrop than the issue of corruption. There is the issue of a politically divided nation where his arrest and charging can be seen as one side persecuting the other.
What we are seeing is a totally divided nation. On one side is the Malay-Islam-centric Perikatan Nasional (PN) which practices division and racist scorn. On the other side is a centralist unity government that respects Malay cultural roots, the multiculturalism of the nation wrapped in Islam as the religion of the nation.
To supplement the two dominant political forces of the peninsula are Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), the dominant political force in Sarawak, and Sabah-based parties blending into a unity government.
There are two distinct visions for Malaysia.
If PN had been the government, there is no doubt there would have been Malay-centric government pushing towards a quasi-Islamic state. This is an acceptable vision of Malaysia to many within the Malay-heartlands (not all).
This is in contrast to Anwar’s unity government, which is seeking to cast some form of middle road, something not fully Islamic but not quite secular either.
The challenge to the unity government and the middle road
The coming six state elections will involve more than 40 percent of the nation’s voters. It’s a good litmus test of what peninsula voters want for Malaysia.
However, the reality is the PN, principally made up of Bersatu and PAS, will ride over Umno and PKR across the six states.
If voting follows the GE15 trends, Umno will almost be wiped out, while PKR will lose a large number of seats.
There is no way Anwar’s unity parties will make any inroads in Kelantan and Terengganu. Anwar’s coalition will also go backwards in Kedah, leaving a much stronger PN state government there.
There will be a big battle in Negeri Sembilan, with the odds running in PN’s favor.
The danger for the unity parties is that the Malay grassroots could see this as not an attack on Muhyiddin but an attack on Islam!
Selangor will see a very intense battle, where PN believe they can take power, and deep down the Pakatan Harapan leadership know they have a real fight on their hands.
Even the state of Penang will face massive losses along the mainland seats, which will leave a PH government in power with a greatly reduced majority.
There is indeed the realization that the unity government’s pride and sense of legitimacy will be damaged at the coming state elections.
How deep the wound is will depend on how much the unity parties are decimated.
Winning Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan would be considered a good victory. The loss of Negeri Sembilan would dint the pride of the unity parties. The loss of Selangor would dig deep into the Anwar administration’s sense of legitimacy.
Umno and PKR are vulnerable and have most to lose. This is why the arrest and charging of Muhyiddin can’t escape being political.
The gameplan we can see
Anwar has said on many occasions his government has zero-tolerance for corruption. That may be the case, but there are side benefits to this policy, either by accident or design.
Investigations, arrests and charges have so far taken out the Bersatu kingpins.
Rumors in the media suggest that some leaders in PAS may soon be called in for investigations over election fraud. We see the MACC working hard on these cases.
The PN camp is crying foul and claiming selective prosecution and political persecution.
The intuitive thinking is that when Muhyiddin faces the crowds during the coming election campaign, he will suffer a major credibility deficit due to the criminal charges hanging over him.
If more are charged before the elections, then the effect would be greater, and discredit the whole PN coalition.
Great risks as it could backfire
However, a counter-intuitive result may occur. We saw the “Bossku effect” with Najib during past election campaigns. People came out to see him like an anti-hero. They were attracted to him as a curiosity, a politically persecuted man, or a crook.
However, whatever this attraction was, it seemed to translate into votes for Umno in Johor last year.
Muhyiddin and company may go to the campaign claiming political persecution. If they can capture this “Bossku effect,” the charges against Muhyiddin and company could politically backfire upon the unity parties.
This could be very much the case among many of the Malay communities which may potentially play a major factor in the coming elections.
So, the big question to be answered here: has the Anwar administration given Muhyiddin ammunition to use in the coming state elections to PN’s advantage?
Shouldn’t charges against Muhyiddin and company wait until after the elections? That would have robbed Muhyiddin of being able to claim he has been politically persecuted. It would have only been a few months to wait before he could have been charged.
Charging Muhyiddin could damage PN’s popularity in the coming state elections. Alternatively, the “Bossku effect” could see an even more motivated PN support base coming out to vote.
The danger for the unity parties is that the Malay grassroots could see this as not an attack on Muhyiddin but an attack on Islam! Abdul Hadi Awang will be sure to take up these narratives.
This could be one of the major factors of the coming state elections.
(Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 40 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic and researcher. He was an associate professor at Universiti Malaysia Perlis.)