From the political earthquake of May’s general election that toppled long-serving prime minister Najib Razak, to the wheels of justice turning on a globe-spanning corruption scandal, 2018 has been momentous a year for Malaysia.

Few have been as directly affected by fast-moving events than veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim, who was only months ago languishing in a jail cell on a politicized sodomy conviction.

He is now prime-minister-in-waiting and expected to take the reins of power when incumbent leader Mahathir Mohamad steps down within the next two years.

In a recent article, Anwar was quoted referring to Malaysia’s expectation-defying election and political transition as an example of “democratic disruption” and a “hopeful outlier to a global trend towards populist nationalism.”

Supporters have heralded the downfall of the once-dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition it led as the beginning of a “New Malaysia.” But while the ending of an decades-long era initially brought euphoria, disillusionment is already on the rise as cracks begin to show within the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Public approval of Mahathir’s performance has plunged nearly 20% since June, according to Invoke Malaysia, a non-profit pollster founded by Rafizi Ramli, vice president of Anwar’s party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). Support from respondents across all ethnic groups has fallen, leaving the premier with a 53% approval rating, down from a 72% high.

Supporters of new Malaysian Prime Minnister Mahathir Mohamad are seen outside of the National Palace, a day after general election in Kuala Lumpur, May 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
Prime Minnister Mahathir Mohamad’s supporters a day after his election win in Kuala Lumpur, May 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Rafizi believes high living costs and unfulfilled election promises are to blame for the government’s dipping popularity. The Malaysian public is “losing patience with what is seen as mere excuses on the part of the Harapan administration,” he wrote in a recent article calling on the government to refocus on easing economic pressures.

Among promises made on the hustings were the abolition of a goods and services tax (GST), the reintroduction of fuel subsidies, the cancellation of debts owed to the state palm plantation agency by smallholder farms, a boost in the minimum wage and the postponement of student loan repayments, among others.

While some vows have been fulfilled or partially fulfilled, rising prices on foodstuffs continue to impact low-income earners while falling commodity prices have hurt farmers. “In some areas, things did get worse after we took over,” admitted Rafizi. “So long as there is no marked [economic] improvement on the ground, the restlessness will continue.”

Mahathir seems to agree with Rafizi and recently said that a failure to fulfill election pledges would lead to a backlash against his government. “We have to work doubly hard to implement the promises concerned,” said the prime minister, who in August admitted that Harapan’s manifesto was written without the expectation of actually winning the polls.

Economic concerns are not the only source of discontent. Inter-coalition and inter-party strife is on the rise, stoking a wave of resignations and defections that have shaken the country’s political landscape. Several dozen UMNO lawmakers abandoned their party this month, with one after another pledging support for the Harapan government.

Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech during a CEO conference organised by a local management association in Manila on September 4, 2018. - Anwar was jailed in 2015 on sodomy charges that critics say were politically motivated and then released in May 2018 after then-Prime Minister Najib Razak's election defeat. (Photo by TED ALJIBE / AFP)
Malaysia’s prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech on September 4, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Lawmakers from the ruling coalition’s PKR and Democratic Action Party (DAP) have cautioned against the possibility of UMNO defectors being welcomed and absorbed by Mahathir’s party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), a move they fear could empower the same legislators and personalities that lined the previous BN coalition.

Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist, sees the mass exodus as a symptom of the psychological blow suffered by UMNO’s defeat after 61 years in power, noting that it now “has little authority, does not occupy positions of importance in society and does not enjoy the perks and privileges of high office.”

“UMNO elites are not used to being out of power. Some of them are keen on getting back to power and are allegedly engaged in maneuvers in that direction,” he said. Muzaffar also pointed to hopes that “some deal can be made with individuals in the Harapan government that may help to keep UMNO bigwigs out of jail or at least lessen their travails.”

Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor both face years behind bars in connection with charges of money-laundering, graft and breach of trust, most of which are linked to the alleged theft of billions of dollars from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund. Both deny any wrongdoing.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who served as Najib’s deputy prime minister, also faces corruption and money-laundering charges in court and similarly claims innocence. He took the helm of UMNO’s presidency after Najib’s resignation in May but was forced to step aside this month because of pressure from within the party over the rising defections.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak talks to media at Kuala Lumpur's High Court after a hearing in the 1MDB financial fraud case on October 25, 2018. Photo: AFP via Andalou Agency/Adli Ghazali
Ex-prime minister Najib Razak at Kuala Lumpur’s High Court after a hearing in the 1MDB financial fraud case, October 25, 2018. Photo: AFP via Andalou Agency/Adli Ghazali

Mahathir has sought to calm nerves by proclaiming his party would only accept defecting lawmakers who pass a stringent vetting process and pledge not to run for any party or government post. Newcomers would be obliged to first serve as independents after leaving UMNO, during which time they would be expected to support Harapan, Mahathir has said.

Still, the nonagenarian prime minister has emphasized a distinction between disgraced UMNO leaders and defecting followers, maintaining that acceptance of the latter could help shore up ethnic Malay support for Harapan: “They are still influential in the villages. If we reject them, we may be rejecting voters,” Mahathir said in a recent interview.

Harapan achieved less than 30% of the share of Malay votes at the May 9 election and some argue that accepting UMNO defectors is necessary to secure crucial support from rural Malay voters. Fifty-five seats are in danger of going to other parties in the next general election if there is a significant shift among Malay voters, according to research by Invoke Malaysia.

Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, believes that the acceptance of more UMNO members into the Harapan coalition could bring about a backlash, giving rise to “political tension and disunity within the coalition, which in turn impedes the ability of Pakatan Harapan to run the government effectively.”

Party-hopping, he notes, has given rise to perceptions of Mahathir’s PPBM becoming UMNO 2.0, despite the prime minister’s assurances to the contrary. That has put some Harapan lawmakers on edge, leading to open criticism from parliamentarians such as the DAP’s Ramkarpal Singh, who believes taking in the defectors amounts to an act of political betrayal.

Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is all smiles during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on May 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin
Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is all smiles during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on May 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Amid the infighting, DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang recently warned his party would not hesitate to exit the coalition government if the reform objectives that underpin the vision of a “New Malaysia” are abandoned. The prospect of a DAP exit is a matter of crucial importance and integral to the coalition’s survival, Mustafa suggests.

“It is essential for the coalition to keep DAP within it as without DAP, the coalition would be severely weakened due to a loss of the bulk of the Chinese support,” he said. “Harapan needs DAP more than the DAP needs the coalition arithmetically so as to keep the simple majority in parliament and therefore, allowing the coalition to form the government.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that the coalition may not live up to expectations,” said the analyst, who sees the dip in Mahathir’s approval ratings as a result of certain cabinet ministers underperforming and “a signal that the political honeymoon for the Pakatan Harapan government is now well and truly over.”

PKR has also been rocked by infighting and the recent shock resignation of Anwar’s daughter, parliamentarian Nurul Izzah Anwar, who relinquished all her posts in the party, including that of vice-president. Sources have claimed she sought to dispel accusations of nepotism within PKR, which critics accuse of being dominated by Anwar’s family.

Nurul will stay on as a parliamentarian but will no longer serve the government in any capacity. She released a statement saying that there are “beliefs and ideals I hold dear and I feel that I can be most true to them by taking this course of action I am now announcing.”

Malaysia-Nurul Izzah Anwar-Anwar Ibrahim-Facebook copy
Anwar Ibrahim with his politician daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Analysts believe PKR is split into two strong factions: one linked to Anwar and another to party deputy president Azmin Ali, who is said to be more closely aligned to Mahathir. Nurul is known to have supported Rafizi Ramli’s unsuccessful bid for the deputy presidency in November, a position that would have put him in line to eventually succeed Anwar.

As the politicking ensues, Anwar himself has urged the coalition’s leaders to stop openly fighting with one another. “The people are always watching us, and we only have a little room and opportunity to prove that Harapan can truly change their and the country’s fate,” he said in a statement on December 22.

Heading into 2019, analysts will closely gauge Malaysia’s political stability, Harapan’s cohesiveness and its handling of issues that could ignite sensitive racial fault lines. Signs of discord between Mahathir and his Anwar would significantly shake confidence in Malaysia’s direction, though relations between the two politicians still appear to be cordial.

Najib’s trial, meanwhile, is set to begin on February 12. Malaysia has courted global attention by recently filing criminal charges against US investment bank Goldman Sachs in connection with its business involvement with 1MDB.

The government seeks a whopping US$7.5 billion in damages, a legal challenge the bank has vowed to “vigorously contest” and one that would provide Malaysia with a much-needed fiscal windfall if the case is eventually won.