Malaysia’s two oldest political parties have formed an alliance, presenting arguably the largest political platform for the majority Malay Muslims at a time of simmering racial and religious tensions.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad led an alliance to a landmark victory at the polls last year, removing a corruption-plagued coalition which had been in power over six decades.
The main party in the former ruling coalition, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has since sought to bolster its position by forging closer ties with one-time rival, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
On Saturday, the parties signed a pact to cooperate in what analysts described as a bid to win backing from the ethnic Malay-Muslim majority ahead of the next election, due by 2023.
UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi insisted the move would not deepen racial and religious divides.
“The confusion within the government now is because of the absence of brave and worthy Malay leaders,” Hamidi said at the signing of the charter, attended by thousands of members from both parties.
“UMNO and PAS will ensure that this cooperation will not separate, distance or make enemies of any race or religion in this beloved nation.”
About 60 percent of Malaysia’s population of 32 million is Malay, but the country is also home to substantial ethnic Indian and ethnic Chinese communities, who do not usually follow Islam.
“We have seen several government policies that have made us Muslims feel threatened… the government now is just pressing down on the Malays and Islam,” said Mohamad Ilman Hakim, a 21-year old university student.
Hakim said the UMNO-PAS union is necessary to push for greater Malay Muslim representation in positions of power, particularly in government and parliament.
However, James Chin, a Malaysia expert from the University of Tasmania, said it was a “sad day for those who wish to see a progressive, modern, multi-racial Malaysia”.
“UMNO and PAS are telling all Malaysians this country belongs to Malays and Muslims,” he said.
Chin said the pact was a significant threat to Mahathir’s coalition, which has a more multi-racial makeup, as UMNO and PAS command strong support in rural areas.
Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy, has seen a string of racial flare-ups for more than a year as Mahathir’s nascent government grapples with an increasingly unhappy majority that fears it is losing its special privileges.
Mahathir’s administration has had to delay or withdraw many of its planned reforms after a backlash from the opposition and conservative groups representing the ethnic Malays.
Malaysia had to withdraw plans to ratify a United Nations convention against racial discrimination, and to accede to the Rome Statute, which would have seen it joining the International Criminal Court.
Mahathir has also had to repeatedly state that the government would not extradite Indian Islamic preacher Zakir Naik, despite an ongoing police investigation for alleged stoking of racial sentiments.