This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling Barisan Nasional coalition has spent the last several years mired in corruption, fraud, and controversy. His unpopularity has united Malaysia's three biggest opposition parties—the progressive, Chinese-backed Democratic Action Party (DAP), the centrist Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), and the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS)—but they have always been strange bedfellows, sharing the goal of ousting Barisan Nasional and little else.
But now, as Malaysia inches towards a possible snap election, PAS seems intent on burying any hope of forming a new coalition in time for the next race.
The Islamist party, which was a member of the now-defunct Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition, but not its successor, the center-left Pakatan Harapan, has taken to calling its former partner DAP "anti-Islamic" over its unwillingness to back PAS's calls for a stricter version of Sharia Law, called hudud, for Malaysian Muslims. The hudud bill could have opened the door to stonings and amputations in Malaysia's conservative Kelantan State—a possibility that raised serious concerns among the country's non-Muslim minorities.
And then there's Selena Gomez.
When the US pop star announced a stop in Malaysia on her 2016 "Revival Tour," PAS politicians were up in arms. They slammed local authorities for approving the concert, with the party's youth wing declaring that Gomez's "sexy" image would "further stoke the hedonistic culture among the country's youths."
The concert went ahead as planned, with Gomez adorned in a loose, black outfit instead of her typical form-fitting attire. The new outfit, she said, was "out of respect for the culture and religion of Malaysia." But it did little to cool tempers among the PAS youth wing—an organization that, apparently, has a long memory.
Nearly one year later, the same youth wing announced that the concert had been the final straw for the Islamist party.
The fact that the concert went ahead despite opposition from conservative Muslim groups only highlighted how little DAP and PKR cared about the Islamist party's beliefs, said Aubidullah Fahim Ibrahim, a member of the Shah Alam chapter of the PAS youth wing. "They were excited about the Selena Gomez concert, disregarding views from PAS, Muslims and Muslim NGOs," he said, according to The Star. "This was an example of how PKR was not committed in strengthening Islam."
The other opposition parties dismissed the entire ordeal as "trivial," and an attempt to mask the party's attempts to cozy up to Najib's United Malays National Organization (Umno) in a veneer of religious conservatism.
"It's just an excuse because PAS's youth wing has nothing constructive to say over any matter and it is finding every excuse to try and sound 'right' with their supporters," said Muhammad Shakir Ameer, the executive secretary of the DAP Socialist Youth wing. "That has always been their tradition. Protest over matters they think are 'un-Islamic.'"
PKR's deputy president Azmin Ali took a different approach, asking reporters: Selena who?
"[People are] angry at me for supposedly supporting Selena Gomez," Azmin said in local media. "Honestly, I don't really know this Selena Gomez… I only know nasyid songs [Islamic devotional songs] and listen to tazkirah [religious sermons]. I don't really know about artists. So why get angry at me."
Confused yet? Well, first of all, this really has nothing to do with Selena Gomez.
In 2013, Najib won the national election in a "tainted" race that observers said was rife with voter fraud, violence, and sectarian-charged campaigning. A report by The Economist said that Barisan Nasional engaged in outright vote buying and gerrymandering to such an extent that even "with less than 47 percent of the popular vote, its worst-ever electoral performance, it still won 60 percent of the 222 parliamentary seats."
Then opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim refused to concede the race, calling for days of protests as he accused Barisan Nasional of flying in as many as 40,000 "dubious" voters from neighboring Indonesia to cast ballots in Najib's favor. He called Najib's win the result of the "worst electoral fraud in our history." Today, he is behind bars, serving the last 12 months of a five-year prison sentence on sodomy charges.
Najib is now embroiled in a massive corruption scandal centered on more than $680 million USD in state funds allegedly pilfered from the 1Malaysia Development Bank (1MDB) investment fund. The scandal has threatened to badly damage Najib ahead of the coming election, and with it undermine Umno's grip on power—which they've maintained since the country's first election all the way back in 1959. Najib reportedly used some of the money, which he claimed was a gift from Saudi Arabia, as a war chest in the 2013 election. The 1MDB cash was reportedly how Najib was able to maintain his grip on power despite a poor showing in 2013.
But it's his skill as a political operator to keep ahold of that power in the face of such serious accusations. He's faced down the country's longest-serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against Najib over his alleged abuse of power and rode out controversy surrounding efforts by the US to seize $1 billion USD in assets reportedly tied to the 1MDB scandal, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal.
Umno posted big wins in two parliamentary elections last year that were held after both incumbents died in a helicopter crash. The 1MDB case was already well known at the time, but Umno's elections machine was still able to easily trounce any challenge from the then fractured opposition coalition.
The next race will likely be decided in Malaysia's rural heartlands, where the predominately ethnic Malay voters tend to skew more conservative than the liberal backers of the Pakatan Harapan coalition. Experts believe Barisan Nasional and the new Bersatu will battle it out over these rural voters, and that PAS will play an important role in swing the vote.
PAS now fancies itself a "kingmaker" in the coming election. The party has repeatedly denied allegations that it was angling for an alliance with Barisan Nasional ahead of the next election. But its also levied fresh criticism at DAP and the new Pakatan Harapan over their "un-Islamic" views.
All signs point to PAS remaining unaffiliated in the coming election, a decision that, according to some sources, is exactly what Umno wants. An independent PAS, duking it out with Pakatan Harapan means a split opposition vote and another win for Umno, according to some reports.
But PAS needs to explain why it couldn't reconcile with the opposition coalition when nearly everyone knows that a three-way race means a victory for Umno. It needs an easy-to-understand issue that gets right to the core of its increasingly hardline beliefs. It needs a highly publicized out. It needs… Selena Gomez.
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