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Malaysia’s Pakatan Rakyat Loses its Luster
The last general election is almost six months behind us, in which the narratives of Malaysian politics have been defined. The Pakatan Rakyat may have won the popular vote, leading some to believe that the opposition coalition is owed a moral mandate. However under a "first past the post" electoral system, the game is about winning seats, not aggregate votes.
Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), one of the three legs of the opposition stool, has ruled Kelantan well for many years within the social and cultural contexts of the state and has shown it understands the aspirations of the Kelantanese. Selangor has been prudently run as a corporation by Parti Keadilan Rakyat's Abdul Khalid Ibrahim despite the current controversy over salaries, and Penang's finances have been restructured with great fiscal skill, where industrial investment has been revived through relentless promotion by the Democratic Action Party's Lim Guan Eng.
However, even with these achievements, the PR doesn’t have the pedigree needed to form a federal government, given the existing inconsistencies and weaknesses. As a multi-dimensional party, PAS doesn’t speak with a unified voice, given its divisions between the fundamentalists and the so-called Erdogans.
The DAP has shown its failure to provide ideologically sound and loyal candidates for political office, causing the downfall of one state government. The coming DAP party election in Penang shows the mad scramble for positions of influence among party stalwarts. To date, PKR has shown itself to be opportunistic, with very little in the way of its own thought-out ideological based policies. In fact some of its views like the one on salary hikes for politicians are even contradictory.
The culmination of these problems, the failure to take tactical initiatives, and electoral blunders have cost the Pakatan Rakyat the grand prize of Malaysian politics, the federal government.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has been grossly unappreciated for his job of holding the line for UMNO in the recent election. He was written off before the election by some who expected great losses. Many felt there was a real possibility that Terengganu and Negeri Sembilan would fall to Pakatan and that it would win back Perak. However Najib held all these states and took back Kedah as well. We will never be sure whether it was Najib's strategic brilliance or Anwar's strategic blundering that made the final result what it was.
The taking back of Terengganu from PAS in 2004 and the recent return of Kedah to the Barisan Nasional indicates that voters won't accept incompetence by any Pakatan government, although they may not apply the same standard to the Barisan, which historically has been riddled with corruption and incompetence. The taking of Kedah by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed's son Mukhriz will be extremely difficult to reverse next election.
Pakatan, and in particular PKR has made a major blunder in Sabah, wanting to run candidates under its own banner rather than work with the existing opposition forces in the state, leading to a number of three-cornered fights. As a result, the opposition is divided into a number of groups which played straight into the hands of UMNO's strong man and Chief Minister Musa Aman, allowing UMNO to dominate the state's political landscape. This cost the opposition forces four federal and eight state assembly seats. In addition PKR itself seems to be disintegrating in the state, with eight to 12 leaders having quit the party over the last few days.
Although the DAP has made inroads into Sarawak’s towns, the rural regions of the state remain the bastion of Taib Mahmud's Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu-dominated government. Pakatan appears to have grossly underestimated the political mastery and respect Taib Mahmud carries in the rural heartlands of Sarawak despite credible reports of vast corruption. He has the qualities of a leader, rather than the administrative mold of many other national leaders, making him a very strong adversary. It's not the work of Pakatan that has made small inroads into PBB support but rather the work of Radio free Sarawak and other independent local activists.
In both Sabah and Sarawak, it is difficult to see where Pakatan can make gains unless it can change its understanding of the political dynamics of both states. From the rakyat or people’s perspective this may be even more difficult as PAS, PKR, and DAP are considered by many as "peninsulacentric", as Lim Kit Siang himself said in a recent article on his blog. Sabah and Sarawak are mathematically critical in deciding which side of politics forms the federal government.
In the last election campaign, Pakatan focused on preaching to the converted. This didn't win new voters. The inroads into Johor were good for the coalition but city campaigns were largely wasted, with perhaps the exception of Anwar's daughter Nurul Izzah in Lembah Pantai where she was challenged by the then UMNO Federal territories minister Raja Nong Chik Zainal Abidin. If the Pakatan leaders had not run the mass rallies in Johor, conveying a syok sendiri or chauvinist manner, the UMNO rhetoric after the election might have been much more conciliatory and inclusive than the current divisive narrative coming out of the party.
Many perceive the PKR to be a dynasty with husband, wife, and daughter holding high profile positions. This is one reason why the Azmin Ali influence is so strong within the party, to the point of being bitterly divisive. His recent comments over a pay increase announced for Selangor lawmakers make Azmin look more like an opposition leader in Selangor than a member of the government.
There is more to Azmin Ali's antics than just naked ambition. He has a point that many in the party agree with. One Sabah PKR leader Jelani Hamden upon his resignation from the party a couple of days ago said that there was too much central control. This is a rift that could paralyze the party, particularly when the rank and file membership are needed on the ground during elections.
The current disagreement about how funds in treasury funds in Selangor should be utilized show the policy malaise of PKR. There is also a wider dimension to policy issues where the PR has not been able to deal with the issue of hudud, or Islamic law, and an Islamic state. The concept of an Islamic state is ill explained. The issue could have been easily resolved through adopting the concept of governance through Islamic principles rather than going all out for an Islamic state. The best advantage for UMNO is for PAS to continue focusing on hudud. For as long as PAS promotes Islamic law, UMNO will stay in power.
It's time for the PR to eradicate ego from the coalition leadership and make a serious attempt to regroup under a new guard for the next election. To do that would shed the usual to allow a new vanguard of Malaysian politicians to emerge who are younger and more energetic than the Barisan. This doesn't mean that the old guard of Anwar Ibrahim, Lim kit Siang and Singh withdraw totally, but rather give others room to move in the generational transition.
The best thing for the PKR might be Anwar to declare that he had no more ambition to become Prime Minister and stand aside. This would go a long way in winning over voters who mistrust his intentions. As long as Anwar clings to the hope of one day becoming PM, Pakatan is doomed to remain in opposition. The myth that Anwar is a vote winner must be overturned. His immense international popularity doesn't equate to winning new voters within Malaysia.
When looking closely at PAS, there is an almost perpetual struggle going on between the Ulama, or religious leaders and the professionals, technocrats, Anwaristas, and other progressives within the party. Occasionally members of the Ulama within PAS make pronouncements which lead to many voters developing a fear of the party due to its interpretation of Islam. This costs PAS votes as Malays tend to be moderate relative to many other Islamic societies. This however has generally been kept in check by leaders like Nik Aziz and Mat Sabu over the last few years.
According to PAS research director Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad, PAS needs to woo the Malay youth and women voters. The youth vote is growing massively and changing the dynamics of elections, and PAS currently only holds around 40 percent of the Malay vote, being only 35 percent among women. UMNO's power house during elections is its women's division UMNO Wanita. If PAS is going to grow its electoral support, it must connect with the women and the younger generation.
Currently PAS is good at preaching to the converted. However its electoral support within the Malay heartland is on the decline. This electoral decline lost Kedah and failed in enabling the opposition to retake Perak. Even in the stronghold of Kelantan, PAS lost six seats although it continues to govern the state. Ironically PAS won in the multi-ethnic areas as a beneficiary of the PR coalition. PAS needs to make up this deficit if the PR is to have any chance of taking over the federal government.
PAS also needs to inspire the multi-ethnic electorate to maintain the support it has gained. Hudud is not going to help with any of these demographics. Many mistake Hudud for Islam because of PAS insistence on the issue. Sometimes PAS mistakes being Arabic for being Islamic , which looks frightening to many voters, particularly urban Malay youth. People don't vote for PAS because of Islam, but rather their dislike for the BN. A vote for PAS is not necessarily a vote for the ideals of the party.
The PAS philosophy that has been so successful in Kelantan cannot be translated nationally. The long premiership of Nik Aziz can be considered an extraordinary example of a leader who had special qualities and was able to appeal to the emotions and aspirations of the Kelantan people. PAS success in Kelantan has little national correlation. With Terengganu and Kedah losses, PAS still has to prove that it can govern.
The rumors of PAS-UMNO talks, fueled by a recent meeting between Kelantan MB Ahmad Yakob and Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak continue to undermine and bring insecurity to the opposition, especially when at the closing of the recent PAS general Assembly, President Abdul Hadi Awang didn’t rule out the possibility of discussions.
As we have seen, policy has very little to do with who governs. It's about emotion and sentiment. It's not about exposing corruption and incompetence, but rather making people in rural Malaysia understand the difference between political parties and government. Otherwise the BN will always be the government and the PR be the opposition. It's also about realizing that those who will be the ones that decide who will be the next government in Putra Jaya are not middle class professionals in the cities but Pakchik and Makchik (Moms & Pops) in the rural areas. This is Perak, much of Johor, Pahang, Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, Perlis, Sabah, Sarawak, and Kedah, which PR lost in the last election.
Most political analysts in Westminster systems would argue that governments lose elections rather than oppositions win them. However the Malaysian context may be different where the opposition needs to win the confidence and trust of the rural electorate. The major problem here is that most rural people don't know any other type of government. Issues such as the separation of party and state are difficult for many to understand. One of the beliefs that many Malays hold is that opposing UMNO is opposing the government. Many rural people have been brought up with the belief that only UMNO can protect their religion, way of life, and against Chinese economic domination.
Part of the reason UMNO has returned to the ultra Malay narrative and taken a strong Islamic stance is UMNO's feeling that it must compete with PAS to show it is the party with the best credentials to look after Malay interests. Consequently the current hudud law project has isolated Islam from the wider concept of Tawhid. Islamic proclamations and the strong stances we are witnessing are not benefitting the progression of Islam within Malaysia.
If PAS presented a more balanced Islamic world view, UMNO would have much greater room to move into the middle ground.
The Pakatan agenda has a massive influence on the behavior of the government. If the opposition was truly concerned about the consequences of its own political rhetoric, the leadership might consider changing approach, which no doubt would also benefit them electorally.
Anwar's "September 16" and Twitter message on election night that "PR has won the election" are difficult in being seen as constructive. Many perceive Anwar to be driven by ambition, hate, and a sense of revenge. His pledge to retire if PR didn't win the election has lost him credibility.
There is a segment of the population who have become disillusioned with the opposition over a number of issues. Anwar's antics, internal struggles, a potential political dynasty, lack of policy direction, and basic mistrust is keeping the PR from winning the federal elections. If the PR wants to win, they must take a hard inward look, rather than blame their loss on phantom voters.
Within the current stance, victory for the PR at the next election looks bleak. The members of the PR need to go back to the drawing board and return to the electorate with consistent and united policies and most of all learn how to engage rural communities. It is therefore not the alternative media that will be most important but the rural JKKKK committees, which is still the proven secret weapon of the BN.
In politics it doesn't matter what foreigners think of the present Malaysian government, or Anwar Ibrahim for that matter. It doesn't matter whether there is electoral fraud or not. Elections are not about the moral high-grounds or even what the majority wants. What matters is knowing the hand you are playing and winning the competition by the rules that exist. Otherwise a tired and scandal-laden government would have long been tossed out of office.
Unlike the post 2008 election period, the Malaysian electorate appears to be "burnt out" and has given up expectation and yearning for change. It's now very much suppressed. This is where the BN is likely to make up lost ground next election as the wave of change has reached the peak and will gently subside.
The PR urgently needs good strategists whose opinions are listened to. The PR must advance from being a one man crusade to becoming a true multi-dimensional coalition with a wide and varied intellectual input and consistent message.