When three legislators in Perak, one of five of opposition-ruled Malaysian states, switched sides in February, overturning a narrow majority in the 59-seat assembly, Umno was cock-a-hoop. After a big electoral setback last year, the long-dominant Umno was at last taking the fight to the opposition, led by its nemesis, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister. Loyalists credited the defections, reportedly induced by the threat of corruption probes, to the bare-knuckle tactics of Datuk Seri Najib Razak, since sworn in as prime minister in place of the mild-mannered Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Taking back Perak was just the start, Umno snarled.
Perak was indeed the start of something, but not the rollback of Malaysia’s opposition, as foreseen by Umno and its ruling coalition partners. Instead it has snowballed into a constitutional crisis that reveals the wobbly underpinnings of a democracy yet to be tested by a handover of power at the federal level. On May 7, amid scuffles at Perak’s state assembly, Umno’s man was installed as mentri besar. Scores of people were arrested, including the speaker of the House, who was bundled away by plainclothes police. He had objected to the takeover as it had never been put to a vote in the assembly.
On May 11 it was the opposition’s turn to crow. The High Court ruled that its man, Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin, was still the mentri besar of Perak as his removal in February was illegal. He had been removed not, as is usual in parliamentary systems, by his elected peers but by Perak’s sultan, one of Malaysia’s hereditary state Rulers. Sultan Azlan Shah had sealed the controversial takeover on Feb 5, ignoring an appeal from Nizar to dissolve the House and hold snap elections.
The opposition’s euphoria was short-lived. The next day Umno successfully obtained a stay from an appeals court against the reinstatement of Nizar. That decision allowed Datuk Seri Zambry Abdul Kadir, Umno’s candidate, to return on May 13 as caretaker mentri besar. Grotesquely, in a blog posting, Zambry likened his grubby power play to the struggles of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.
A fast-track deliberation by the appeals court should resolve the case in the next week or so. But the political fallout is much harder to fix. Should the obstreperous assembly reconvene, more scuffles are likely, says James Chin, a political scientist at Monash University’s campus in Kuala Lumpur. One way out, it seems, is to hold fresh elections in Perak. Yet that is exactly what Umno fears most after a run of embarrassing defeats in state and federal polls. Ministers complain that by-elections are a waste of public money. In the case of Perak, the legal and legislative routes have not been exhausted, argues Khairy Jamaluddin, a senior Umno official.
The opposition is expected to win again in Perak, as it did in March 2008 in an election that saw the Umno-led Barisan Nasional lose its cherished two-thirds majority in Parliament. Anwar subsequently sought to persuade 30 ruling MPs to cross the floor, the same tactic used in Perak. His advisers argued that this was justified as he planned to dissolve the House and return power to the people, betting on victory. In the end, Anwar’s carrot went unbitten. But it dangles still, and Umno knows it.
The bigger question posed by the proxy war in Perak is what happens if the levers of federal power should one day slip from Umno’s hands, as has seemed inevitable since last year’s election. Entrenched political elites rarely go quietly. A politicised civil service and security apparatus might resist an opposition victory, and look to the judiciary and, possibly, the sultans for support. Anwar knows this, and is courting power-brokers in the system. But the danger of civil unrest should not be dismissed lightly. That is particularly true if Umno decides to play on tensions between Malaysia’s majority Malays and its ethnic-Chinese and Indian minorities.
Until the Perak storm broke, Najib had been steering a mildly reformist course. A handful of political prisoners have been freed, including ethnic Indians jailed after rowdy anti-government protests in 2007. Regulations on Islamic banking and insurance, and on local-ownership restrictions in selected service sectors were liberalised. But the core grievances of non-Malays over statutory privileges for the Malays remain. These privileges, staunchly defended by Umno, were introduced in 1971, two years after deadly race riots in Kuala Lumpur. The riots began after Umno suffered election losses to Chinese-based opposition parties. The date, by coincidence, was May 13, 1969.
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The mess Najib made in Perak