Veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim marked the two-decade anniversary of Malaysia’s reform movement at his party’s national congress over the weekend amid heated factional infighting that could threaten wider political stability.

The man tipped to become the country’s next prime minister delivered his first speech as president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) since being freed from jail and pardoned of a sodomy conviction last May, but political acrimony cast an ominous shadow over the event.

PKR, now the largest party in the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, is sharply divided between Anwar loyalists and others backing PKR deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali. The factional divide broke into the open with Azmin’s supporters staging a dramatic walkout during the proceedings.

At the crux of the divide is a dispute over who will take the premiership after 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad steps down, as he has vowed to do before his five-year term expires in 2023.

While Mahathir has promised the top job to Anwar, many speculate that he privately favors Azmin for the role. Persistent infighting and the lack of a succession timeline have clouded Malaysia’s political outlook. So, too, have a steady stream of sex-tinged allegations.

A day before the PKR assembly opened, a 26-year-old former male aide accused Anwar of sexually assaulting him in a Facebook Live broadcast. Anwar denied the allegation, describing it as “politics at its worst.” When asked about the accusation, Azmin said he would defend his boss “to the end” and not tolerate “gutter politics.”

Anwar Ibrahim (L) and Mohamed Azmin Ali (R), at a 20-year Party Keadilan Rakyat celebration at Dataran Rantau, Negeri Sembilan. Photo: Facebook/Malay Mail

Azmin was himself at the center of a similar controversy in June when a sex tape purporting to show him having an affair with a male aide went viral, which he disputed and dismissed as a political ploy.

Police say the identities of those in the sex tape cannot be determined and have claimed the leader of a political party was behind the video’s release.

Anwar has strongly denied any a role in the circulation of the video, but had openly called for Azmin to resign if he was “identified conclusively” as one of the men in the tape.

That comment struck some as ironic considering Anwar has served two jail terms on what many regard as politicized sodomy and corruption charges. Sodomy is considered a criminal offense in Muslim majority Malaysia.

“The rift between the Anwar and Azmin factions reached a political breaking point at the PKR national congress,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Institute of South Asian Studies.

The two politicians had agreed to a truce ahead of the weekend’s congress aimed at defusing weeks of political maneuvering and rising hostilities between the two camps.

But Azmin and his supporters accused Anwar’s camp of violating the terms of the ceasefire after both sides initially agreed not to level attacks on one another during their assembly speeches.

Delegates from the rival camps traded barbs, and even blows, with some in Anwar’s faction calling for those not aligned with the party’s president to be expelled.

In an apparent veiled jab, Anwar referenced a historic parable from the Malay Annals, a literary work on the demise of the 16th century Malacca Sultanate, during his speech to suggest treachery within the party.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) talks to Anwar Ibrahim during a by-election campaign in Port Dickson, October 8, 2018. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Adli Ghazali

Once the fragile truce crumbled, Azmin’s group resumed a called-off gathering in a Kuala Lumpur hotel on December 8 that many had viewed as a parallel party congress.

There, the deputy president gave a scathing speech to supporters that sought to depict his faction as truer to PKR’s commitment to justice and reform.

“This party wasn’t built by one person, or a single family, but by Malaysians,” said Azmin, who accused Anwar of dynastic politics.

Azmin, who now serves as economic affairs minister, said in separate remarks a day earlier that the government’s focus should be on implementing reforms rather than prime ministerial succession.

Click here to read an earlier Asia Times’ report on the PKR’s factional divide.

He and his supporters have previously called for Mahathir to continue as national leader for a full five-year term rather than stepping aside for Anwar.

“Many of Azmin’s supporters argue that they disagree with the overwhelming focus in the Anwar camp on him becoming prime minister, at the expense of other issues facing the country,” said Francis Hutchinson, coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Program at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“A related point is the Azmin camp’s issue with what is perceived as Anwar’s authoritarian leadership style within the party,” said Hutchinson.

He said that any new truce between the 72-year-old Anwar and his 55-year-old deputy is unlikely to hold as their conflict is “structural.”

“Both men and their camps have defined this contest – in real or de facto terms – to be about who will be the next prime minister,” he said. “This then makes the contest zero-sum and all-or-nothing,” Hutchinson remarked.

Aerial view of UMNO’s assembly meeting, December 7, 2019. Photo: Facebook

Across the aisle, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the once-dominant former ruling party, is on an increasingly confident footing, with its annual general assembly over the weekend signaling its intent to retake the government after being ousted at last May’s general election.

Cooperation between the country’s two largest ethnic Malay-based parties is at the heart of that strategy. UMNO has in recent months formalized its loose political cooperation with Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an Islamist opposition party that aims to implement stricter sharia criminal laws.

Analysts believe the UMNO-PAS alliance had been regarded with unease by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), ethnic minority parties allied with UMNO under there once-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

But a recent by-election victory for the opposition arguably helped to change minds.

UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi claimed the opposition’s huge win in the Tanjung Piai constituency – which saw a candidate from MCA win with nearly three-quarters of the vote – represented a vote of confidence for Muafakat Nasional (MN), a yet-to-be registered pact envisioned to replace the BN with a new coalition between UMNO, PAS, MCA and MCI.

Click here to read an Asia Times’ report on the Tanjung Piai by-election.

Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, UMNO’s youth chief, opened the party’s assembly with a call to formally institutionalize MN. Another party chief, Zahida Zarik Khan, said the Tanjung Piai victory proved that MN could give “non-Malays and non-Muslims a voice in our national politics.”

“It looks likely that MN will consolidate and grow stronger in the months ahead,” said Hutchinson.

“However, its promise lies not in contesting GE-15 (the 15th general election in 2023), but in keeping PH on the back foot and enabling a concerted effort in securing by-election victories,” he added.

With the weekend’s political assemblies painting the UMNO-led opposition as a force increasingly confident in its ability to mount a resurgence, the turbulence at the PKR’s national congress made for a stark spilt-screen.

Azmin Ali (C) arrives at the PKR’s Women and Youth congress on December 5, 2019. Photo: Facebook

“One difference between the Azmin and Anwar factions is that the former favors a more communalistic approach, while the latter prefers a more reformist multiracial approach to political conduct, policymaking and strategic planning,” said Mustafa.

Hutchinson agreed with the assessment. “Azmin has made more communally-oriented statements and is perceived more as a Malay leader per se, than as a Malay leader in a multi-ethnic political party.”

The PKR deputy president also has the support of PKR leaders from other ethnic groups, he noted.

“It is very likely that these [factional] tensions will get worse over time, and as the perceived deadline for the transfer of power away from Mahathir to someone else approaches,” Hutchinson said.