COMMENT | When the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, or Bersatu, was set up in September 2016, both Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Muhyiddin Yassin were on the same side – both rejecting Umno and the kleptocracy of the Najib Razak government. Last week, after one leader instructed his ally to sack the other leader and another leader claimed he would sack the first leader, the escalating squabble inside the party showed the public the deep split that extends beyond the two men.
At issue are personal loyalties, principles (what little remains of them), pride and power – with the latter gluttony for power a driving force. Neither man is willing to step away from the fight or their desire for control of the top position, so far.
The person who has the most to lose is Muhyiddin, who kicked a parliament vote down the road, and is now facing his first real litmus test of power – whether he can command his own party. Rather than strengthen Muhyiddin’s leadership, events so far in the Bersatu battle have undermined him and are raising the question whether the damage inflicted will leave him and the party with nothing at all.
On the surface, there are two main ongoing intertwined battles taking place – for control of the party and for control of the government.
The scripts involve similar storylines, but the endings are yet unfinished. The fight over the party involves using levers of power such as the Registrar of Societies (ironically using changes that Mahathir put in place in 1988), legal battles and persuasion (both personal and financial). With Bersatu’s election and formal Supreme Council meeting weeks away, the party battle is being played out in public - in office occupations and press conferences. This will garner public attention, with Mahathir gaining ground when he is both pushing back and being pushed out.
The fight for government – an even higher stake in the political war – is a perpetual numbers game. This is largely taking place behind closed doors. The Raya period has been one of intensive meetings. Rather than share a feast around a table, the discussion has centred on who will get what share and whose feet will be in the chair at the head of the table.
Many are eating at different tables and looking at what is on offer. The question is not just the numbers – but who exactly is at which table and with whom and, importantly, their stability and acceptance by others in the various groupings. As with the party contest, the fight for government is likely to continue into Malaysia’s long Raya season – with it increasingly overshadowing the party contest as...