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Spat raises spectre of Malaysian opposition split

A power-broking rift within Malaysia's opposition alliance is spurring fears that the unlikely multi-racial coalition, which inspired millions to imagine an alternative to the country's decades-old regime, faces potential collapse.

KUALA LUMPUR: A power-broking rift within Malaysia's opposition alliance is spurring fears that the unlikely multi-racial coalition, which inspired millions to imagine an alternative to the country's decades-old regime, faces potential collapse. 

Unprecedented electoral gains have enabled the diverse three-party Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact) to paper over wide religious and social differences in its six-year history. But an impasse over a key political appointment has reignited nagging doubts over its cohesiveness.

"I think Pakatan's basic viability is being severely tested," said Tony Pua, a leading parliamentarian with the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a Pakatan component. Failure to heal the rift would mean "the whole question of us staying together becomes moot."

The fight centres on de facto Pakatan leader Anwar Ibrahim's bid to have his widely respected wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, appointed chief minister of Selangor, Muslim-majority Malaysia's richest and most populous state. In 2008 polls, the opposition for the first time won Selangor, the jewel in a run of recent electoral spoils nationwide that have rocked the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

But top figures in the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) - a conservative Muslim party frequently at odds with its more secular Pakatan partners - support retaining Selangor incumbent Khalid Ibrahim. A former businessman and member of Anwar's People's Justice Party, Khalid is respected by many for his running of Selangor, which Pakatan retained in elections last year. He refuses to budge.

LEADERS PLEDGE UNITY

PAS is accused of violating an agreement against meddling in each party's appointments. Anwar's party - which controls Selangor - this week threatened to expose alleged corruption by Khalid unless he steps down. Malaysia's UMNO-controlled mainstream media has gleefully pounced on the unseemly spat, forcing Anwar and other top Pakatan leaders to stand shoulder-to-shoulder last weekend to vow the alliance would not collapse.

In a statement on Tuesday, Anwar added Pakatan must "resist all attempts to break it apart" while warning that failure to close ranks "may warrant some difficult decisions to be made." He did not elaborate. His office has declined comment.

PAS's top leadership is expected to decide a potentially make-or-break final stance on the matter Sunday. Political analysts expect Pakatan to make peace to avoid throwing away its recent gains, but add that the affair fuels questions among voters and markets over whether Pakatan is stable enough to govern nationally.

The bloc won a majority of the popular vote last year, but failed to make history by winning national government. It blamed an UMNO-tilted electoral system. 

With the next elections not due until 2018, Pakatan faces a challenge sustaining momentum amid its members' differences, said political pollster Ibrahim Suffian. "Assuming Pakatan Rakyat survives this, the question is what will it be able to do over the next three to four years? Even if Selangor is patched up, there could be problems elsewhere," he said.

UMNO-dominated coalitions have governed multi-ethnic Malaysia since independence in 1957, bringing enviable economic development. But it is accused of rampant corruption, persecuting opponents, and a divide-and-rule strategy that has perpetuated racial divisions.

Since 2008, the once-hapless opposition has rallied around Anwar - a charismatic former rising UMNO star who was ousted in a bruising late-1990s power struggle - winning huge support with promises of clean government, racial harmony and a freer society. But fundamental differences - stoked incessantly by UMNO - regularly break the surface, particularly PAS's advocacy of harsh sharia Islamic criminal punishments.

Sharia is vehemently opposed by PAS's partners, especially the largely Christian ethnic Chinese DAP. "The dynamic is complex but basically it boils down to who should lead Pakatan," said Bridget Welsh, an author on Malaysia politics. "So, legitimate questions arise: Can they govern and can they solve problems together?"

Questions over Anwar's future have complicated matters. Anwar, 66, is considered Pakatan's glue, but a court in March sentenced him to five years' jail on sodomy charges widely seen as trumped up by UMNO. He is appealing the ruling.

Originally, Anwar was rumoured to be angling for the Selangor minister's post - a potentially powerful soapbox for Pakatan's top asset ahead of the next elections. But the court sentence scuppered that, setting up the bid to appoint his wife, and now the current impasse.

Analysts said Pakatan's future depends largely on an internal struggle within PAS between Islamic conservatives and moderates who favour greater conciliation toward alliance partners. "The Selangor issue could force the moderates to assert themselves in the party to protect all that has been achieved, and that could emerge as a positive outcome (for Pakatan)," said Suffian.

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