Spotlight – Malaysia: July 21, 2022

by | Jul 21, 2022 | Blog, Opinion Pieces

Photo: MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images (CSIS)


Parti Keadilan Rakyat held its 16th annual convention this weekend, confirming a major change in direction for the party. Keadilan’s inner politics have wide-ranging repercussions, as the party is the historical socle of Malaysia’s democratic opposition and has been through tremendous changes in the past few years.

Keadilan’s leadership emerged from the Reformasi movement led by Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister sacked by Mahathir Mohamad in 1998. Anwar’s dismissal from government precipitated one of the most intense moments in Malaysia’s modern political history, leading to the imprisonment of Anwar and the repression of the Reformasi movement. Two decades later, Keadilan took power as part of Pakatan Harapan, a coalition formed with the Democratic Action Party and the Islamist party Amanah (an offshoot of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia, or PAS). In 2018, Pakatan Harapan formed an alliance with former enemy Mahathir and his new party Bersatu to (democratically) topple Prime Minister Najib Razak, accused of corruption and abuse of power. Pakatan Harapan’s victory ended 61 years of a monopoly on power held by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Yet, by January 2020 and after months of pressure and dissent from within the coalition, Mahathir resigned and the Pakatan Harapan government fell. Mahathir was pushed out of Bersatu by party president Muhyiddin Yassin, who became prime minister in March 2020.

Bersatu left the Pakatan Harapan coalition, taking with it key members of the Keadilan leadership, including deputy party president Azmin Ali and women’s wing chief Zuraida Kamaruddin. A few months later, Anwar attempted to purge Keadilan’s ranks to erase all alleged sympathizers of Azmin remaining in the party. Paralyzed by factionalism, Keadilan began its descent toward inward-looking politics. Meanwhile, Muhyiddin left power in August 2021 and paved the way for Ismail Sabri Yaakob, an UMNO leader, to take over a hybrid government composed of both UMNO and Bersatu leaders. The transition was smoothened by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Pakatan Harapan and the government, now consisting of a temporary alliance between Perikatan Nasional led by Bersatu and Barisan Nasional led by UMNO. Pakatan Harapan claimed that the MoU was a sign of mature politics, although some may argue that it resulted in the self-silencing of the opposition.

Anwar’s odd political moves, in addition to his many failed attempts to take over the parliament majority, have tarnished his image. Leaked audio recordings of his phone conversations with UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi exposed connivence between the two leaders and further damaged Anwar’s reputation. In 2018, his daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, once seen as the “princess” of the Reformasi movement, resigned from her post as party vice president while remaining a member of parliament. The departures of Azmin and Nurul Izzah, increased factionalism, and other successive controversies have created a vacuum of leadership in Keadilan, paving the way for the return of Rafizi Ramli, the onetime protégé of Anwar.

Rafizi left the party in 2018 and went off the grid for over two years before making a comeback earlier this year a few months before Keadilan’s party election. Rafizi directly aimed for the deputy president position and never hid his intention to, slowly or not, push Anwar out. Over the past few months, pressure within the party has mounted and all factions involved have leveled accusations of electoral tampering, leading to a technical investigation of the 4,000 tablets used for digital voting. While Keadilan confirmed that attempts to abuse its internal election systems indeed took place, no party sanction was taken. Today, Anwar is isolated as the newly elected party leadership largely belongs to the Rafizi faction. Keadilan’s annual convention was a demonstration of force for the latter, further aggravating Anwar’s loss of touch with his base. However, Rafizi later appointed Nurul Izzah to her former post as party vice president, while also retaining Saifuddin Nasution, his opponent in the deputy president race, as party secretary general. Surprisingly, since his return to the top, Rafizi has relentlessly attacked Najib Razak, the former prime minister, with the same old rhetoric he used back in 2017; as if he had never left, or as if his party had not taken power in 2018. Rafizi could become the de facto leader of a Malaysian opposition that urgently needs a fresh influx of ideas—though for now, it seems that he has come back empty-handed.

Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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