Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (C) arrives during a rally in Shah Alam, outside Kuala Lumpur on March 27, 2016. Leaders from across Malaysia's political spectrum said on March 27 they plan to present a petition to the country's Islamic royalty seeking the removal of scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak over a corruption crisis. (MOHD RASFAN / AFP)

Mahathir’s Bersatu is Best Understood as an NGO

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Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, a new Malay-based political party, has been formed by Mahathir Mohamed to provide an alternative to UMNO and wins votes from the Malays.

The recent decision by the 91-year-old former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and his closest supporters to form a new political party understandably raised many eyebrows. This incomprehension turned into indignation when it was announced that the party – Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) – will be a Malay-based one and non-Malays can only be associate members.

The pertinent question the founding of Bersatu appears to raise is whether racial affinity is really something one can ignore in politics, be it in Malaysia or elsewhere. And if yes, to what extent. However, the issue is another.

The opposition parties had been growing stronger over the last decade but never strong enough, and with that, it has become clear that Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition, remains in power because it has the rural vote. Even with the scandals surrounding 1MDB, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government appears unassailable still.

Bersatu is essentially not in effect to be seen as an ordinary political party. It is best understood as a one-issue non-government organization (NGO).

The claim that Malaysians are moving away from race politics is undeniably truer of urban areas than of the kampongs. Is the hold that UMNO has in the rural areas exercised through patronage politics alone, as multiracialists would like to believe, or is it more profoundly because UMNO is seen by many Malays as the champion of their race, no matter how bad its recent performance has been?

Bersatu is essentially not in effect to be seen as an ordinary political party. It is best understood as a one-issue non-government organization (NGO). And its goal is the toppling of Najib. In the context of its founding, it could not have been anything other than a race-based party, and its simple strategy is to win votes away from UMNO and convince rural voters that there can be more than one Malay champion.

In that sense, Bersatu has a progressive role to play.