Ten months after Malaysia’s historic election that unseated the long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), there are already signs the political pendulum is starting to swing back.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s multiracial ruling coalition, known as Pakatan Harapan, is now suddenly on the defensive from an emboldened opposition pact that has successfully rebranded itself after last May’s crushing electoral defeat.

Earlier this month, UMNO and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the country’s two largest ethnic Malay-based parties, formalized their loose cooperation into a formal alliance after notching two consecutive by-election wins so far this year, with the latest electoral gains made in a government stronghold state.

Divisive rhetoric from UMNO and PAS figures has flared tensions, as both parties fashion themselves as defenders of ethnic Malay rights and Islam, which they say are being threatened by the government’s reform agenda and the appointment of non-Malay politicians to prominent positions.

Speaking at a campaign rally in Semenyih, a bellwether constituency in wealthy Selangor state where an UMNO-led opposition coalition won a by-election last month, Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, an UMNO stalwart and former law minister, asserted that the Harapan-appointed chief justice, attorney-general and finance minister – all of whom are non-Malays – failed to complete their respective oaths of office because they had not been sworn in on a Koran.

UMNO secretary general Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Lawyers and human rights groups panned Nazri’s remark for stoking racism while noting that oath-taking does not require the use of a Koran under the constitution. The ex-minister’s remarks also ruffled feathers with the ethnic minority parties in UMNO’s former ruling, now opposition Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) issued a statement saying that they would be “moving on” and “exploring a new alliance” in response to recent racial remarks by UMNO leaders and in opposition to Nazri’s earlier appointment as BN secretary general, which they maintained was invalid and done without consultation.

The two parties softened their views after BN removed Nazri from the post and eventually walked back their earlier announcement, saying they would remain in BN in order to maintain multiracial cooperation and prevent race relations from tilting toward a “Malays against non-Malays” scenario.

Malay Muslims account for around 60% of Malaysia’s multiracial population and are granted special privileges and status as bumiputera, or “sons of the soil”, under the constitution. Minority Chinese and Indian communities together make up some 30% of the population, while indigenous people and tribes account for the remainder.

Though BN’s acting chairperson Mohamad Hasan said the coalition would look into the MCA and MIC’s complaints, it remains to be seen to what extent the coalition can forge a political consensus as UMNO moves in lockstep with PAS to champion a form of ethno-religious nationalism widely seen as inimical to multiracialism and alienating to non-Malays.

The two parties have plans to form an opposition caucus in Parliament, though they will not be contesting under the same banner or forming a coalition. Top leaders from each of the parties will soon convene to prepare a framework for their political cooperation in the interest of “uniting Muslims and Malays,” according to local media reports.

Mahathir appeared to shrug off news of the UMNO-PAS alliance, but said the idea of a coalition between the two parties was “very bad’ for Malaysia’s pluralistic society. However, remarks made on the matter by Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng – an ethnic Chinese member of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in the ruling Harapan coalition – stoked a counter-controversy.

Malaysia's Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng speaks during a news conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng at a press conference, May 24, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Lim initially released a Chinese-language statement saying that the UMNO-PAS alliance was tantamount to “declaring war” on non-Malays. He issued a correction hours later which replaced the phrase “declaring war” with the word “targeting” amid opposition calls to file police reports against him for inciting racial hatred.

Lim’s office went as far as to contact Malaysian newsrooms to demand the phrase be changed in stories they had already published. The communications gaffe highlighted Harapan’s struggle to frame its narrative as the opposition fans perceptions that Malay rights are under siege by a government they allege is dominated by ethnic Chinese.

Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, an ex-parliamentarian, told Asia Times that UMNO-PAS invectives have gained traction because Harapan “hasn’t actually brought any economic benefits”, citing rising prices on daily necessities, a negligible minimum wage rise and the scaling back of the previous government’s popular cash handout scheme.

“All of these give some sort of credence to the UMNO charge that Harapan is actually controlled by the DAP. There has already been some erosion of support among urban Malays. They feel marginalized,” he said, adding that the opposition’s playing of race and religion cards represents a “significant threat” to the reform process and inter-ethnic relations.

Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, contends that the opposition’s Malay populism is “not a winning formula to retake the government” as there is “little appetite” for such tactics among voters in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, urban Malays and non-Malays, particularly ethnic Chinese.

However, Malay populism “does have its traction and can deliver [certain] favorable outcomes,” he said. “UMNO-PAS are relying on Malay populism, particularly among the rural Malays to make incremental gains, gradually eating into the majoritarian support and electoral seats of Pakatan Harapan.”

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak gives the keynote address during the his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) annual assembly in a file photo. Reuters/Olivia Harris
Malaysia’s then prime minister Najib Razak gives the keynote address during UMNO’s annual assembly in a file photo. Reuters/Olivia Harris

The ruling coalition “doesn’t seem to have an answer to counter this game,” says Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the local Penang Institute think-tank. “Hence, some of them try to match UMNO and PAS in communal outbidding, but they cannot go as far and even not going as far, they are bound to alienate their minority and liberal base,” he says.

Rising polarization is also causing cracks inside the Harapan coalition. Nurul Izzah Anwar, a parliamentarian and daughter of veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim, resigned from all her party and government positions late last year and now says she will be serving her final term as a federal lawmaker, citing frustration with the “slow pace” of reform.

“We’re not doing enough to embolden the middle. We’re not doing enough to embolden those who are considered moderate,” she was quoted saying in a recent interview when asked about politically charged racial-religious rhetoric. She also called on Harapan to change its approach, rather than “suddenly embracing the Malay agenda per se.”

Her remarks were seen as countering Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali, deputy president of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) to which she belongs, who called on the coalition to double-down on the Malay and bumiputera agenda “without feeling apologetic or fearful of the criticism of others,” following Harapan’s defeat in Semenyih.

Another by-election is scheduled for April 13 in the Rantau constituency that will see acting UMNO president Mohamad Hasan defend his seat in a high-stakes contest that could help him help solidify his position in the party and continue the right-wing opposition’s forward momentum. Analysts believe Harapan faces an uphill struggle in the district.

Despite one of the largest pockets of Indian voters in a state constituency, Malays Muslims make up more than half the voter bloc. Rais Husin, a strategist with the ruling coalition’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), predicts a 50-50 chance of Harapan losing a third consecutive by-election due to “a good chunk of Malay anger.”

Members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) listen to a speech by Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak during its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
UMNO members listen to a speech by Malaysia’s then Prime Minister Najib Razak during its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, December 7, 2017. Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Kartini Aboo Thalib Khalid, an associate professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, told Asia Times that Harapan has failed to convince Malays that they, as “the host society,” stand to enjoy more benefits “by accepting equality with the other,” adding that the government has been too focused on laying blame at the previous administration’s doorstep.

Malay Muslims, she says, are also troubled over the use of languages other than Bahasa Melayu in ministerial announcements and see the government’s now-cancelled plans to ratify a United Nations convention against racial discrimination as “challenging the constitution” vis-à-vis the ethnic community’s enshrined special position.

Harapan needs to “start improving their public relations with the majority and stick to their agenda of improving the well-being of the people. If they emphasize too much on criticizing the past and are unable to deliver in the present, they will only stand for one term as a government,” she predicted.