Malaysia's Fading Opposition
Three years ago the opposition Pakatan Rakyat's victorious sally in the 2008 general election seemed to have Malaysia's governing Barisan Nasional alliance on the ropes. Then only a Cassandra would have predicted that Pakatan's successes would appear so hollow so soon.
State elections in Sarawak loom, supposedly the last campaign for Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, just the kind of long-standing Barisan potentate that Pakatan was supposed to sweep away. Instead, the only question is how big a majority he will win. Few doubt it will be less than two thirds.
Far from charging at the head of his troops, Pakatan's charismatic leader, Anwar Ibrahim, is suspended from parliament and distracted not only by his second, interminable sodomy trial but now also by the allegation that he is the star of a sex tape (by way of variation, with a woman) produced by a trio collectively known as "Datuk T."
If the tide of filth through which Anwar must wade is politically motivated – and whatever the truth of the charges against him, no one believes they stem solely from an earnest desire for rectitude in the private lives of MPs – some of it still sticks. Visiting Kuala Lumpur recently, Anwar's former adviser Ziauddin Sardar told me that as long ago as 1996 he predicted that the then deputy PM's enemies would try to fell him by bringing up sodomy.
"Simply accusing him of bribes, cronyism and having affairs with women was not going to work. Those who know Anwar know he is above such things," said Sardar, now a prominent UK-based critic and commentator. "They had to find something unthinkable, something the Malays had a deep aversion for."
The problem is that while Sardar may declare him "a man of unshakeable integrity," who "cannot be bought, bribed or forced to deviate from the path of honesty," there are plenty who are not so sure. His nemesis and onetime boss, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said that Anwar admitted to "affairs with women" in his just-published memoirs, claiming that prior to his ousting, his former deputy told UMNO's supreme council "he had done nothing unusual and insisted that everyone had done such things."
Not all believe the good doctor, of course; nor might they listen too closely to former colleagues in government who remember a not-quite-so saintly figure.
But Anwar's cause was dealt a blow from the home side earlier this year when reports highlighted the fact that although he later changed his mind, the DAP chairman Karpal Singh (subsequently Anwar's defence lawyer), also once accused him of sodomy, raising the issue in parliament in 1997 and asking the government to act against the then deputy PM. Even in liberal circles, observers with no great affection for the BN privately express the strong suspicion that Anwar might have indulged in hanky panky, possibly with both sexes.
These may be the tribulations of one man, but he is the man that matters: the only one who is, or who could be, a prime minister-in-waiting. And they are compounded by, and partly the cause of, those also being suffered by his party, PKR, and hence Pakatan as a whole.
Of Pakatan's three allies, the DAP gives the impression of being fighting fit, helmed by the still dynamic duo of Lim Kit Siang and Karpal, with an array of talent coming up the ranks and of an age to take over if necessary. In particular there is Lim's son, Guan Eng, who is also Penang's chief minister, Karpal's feisty orator son Gobind Singh, and the forensic economics whizz Tony Pua.
PAS, meanwhile, appears to have maintained its grip on its heartland in the peninsula and – important not only in wresting the Malay vote from UMNO but also to encourage non-Malays to overcome their reservations about casting their ballots for a party that used to think the Taliban had a good thing going -- its reputation for probity.
However much they try to paper over the cracks, though, the leftist, Chinese majority DAP and the Malay Islamists of PAS are allies of convenience, not soulmates. They cannot stop themselves from rowing over the extent to which Muslim laws should apply: for instance, PAS-controlled Kelantan's ban on the sale of "un-Islamic" lottery tickets, which the Chinese like to buy. Beyond good governance, their aims are ultimately incompatible.
So, how to keep these two together? This is supposed to be the role of PKR. And this is where Anwar's party is failing badly, struggling to convey what it is for, apart from being a vehicle for its leader's ambitions, and immensely damaging Pakatan Rakyat's effectiveness and chances at the next general election. It has lost a fifth of its parliamentary representation to defections and resignations since 2008, including in January N Gobalakrishnan, whose departure was particularly devastating given that he was a founder member of PKR who had given up a promising career within the Barisan Nasional (he had been Youth Leader of the BN component party, the Malaysian Indian Congress).
Other prominent figures such as former UMNO law minister Zaid Ibrahim, whose initial joining of PKR was hailed as a great coup, and the former vice president Jeffrey Kitingan, have left to start their own parties. When matters of import are in the air, the voice of PKR is drowned out by its own wranglings.
At a ceramah in the Empire Hotel, Subang, last weekend, PKR's communications director, Nik Nazmi, admitted that the party had serious issues with its image. "People don't understand what PKR is about apart from Anwar Ibrahim, that's what they tell me," he said. As for the loss of parliamentary seats, he explained that as PKR only had one MP and one state assemblyman before 2008, "everyone thought we were a lost cause. It was difficult to get good candidates." Of the 31 MPs who were then elected, he said, "some were not good enough. The jokers lost the plot and that's why they defected."
Anwar's daughter, PKR vice president Nurul Izzah, joined him in stressing that the disagreements with which the BN-supporting press has made much hay were a healthy sign. "They are important," she said. "Don't imagine that because the BN appears to have blanket agreement that it is so." They both seemed aware, however, that incidents such as the arguments between PKR and the DAP over seat allocation in Sarawak, in which Tony Pua accused PKR's negotiator of being "a little Napoleon", come across less as vibrant democracy at work than as evidence of a house divided.
The pair made impassioned pleas for PKR to be recognised as a unique driver for change: the first party in South East Asia to introduce One Member for One Vote for internal elections (hence, said Nurul Izzah, while turn out may have been low in last November's vote, 80,000 ballots were still cast "more than in any other party election"); and the only truly multiracial party in the country. "We are multiracial but Malay-led," said Nik Nazmi. "That is the only way you can convince the Malays about multiracialism."
The 29-year-old Selangor assemblyman is impressive, fluent and likeable. He even managed a good joke about how he knew the sex charges against his party leader were false. "I worked for him for two years as his private secretary. I'm quite good-looking, and nothing happened to me!" Nik Nazmi could be a future leader – but he is way too young for now. In terms of the top echelons who should be taking the reins while Anwar has to deal with his troubles, PKR is appallingly weak. Zaid Ibrahim could possibly have filled that role, even if his arrival and instant presumption to prominence put out the backs of veterans. A party with a greater grip on its long-term strategy would not have contrived to lose one of the clearest-eyed analysts of Malaysian politics, whatever the personality clashes his staying might have entailed.
For PKR and for Pakatan Rakyat, much is at stake here. "We have a chance for change at the next general election," said Nik Nazmi. "If not, it might be another 50 years." But the onus is on PKR to prove that is worthy of leading the opposition; otherwise PAS and the DAP may conclude that they are better off concentrating on their own strongholds rather than sacrificing too much for a greater effort that comes to nothing. "We have to improve ourselves," conceded Nurul Izzah. "That's a reality we are facing much more than PAS or the DAP."
Recognising that PKR's report card reads "must do better – much better" is a start. Translating that into action that revitalises the party and gives it the appearance of focus and energy is the hard part. The cause is not lost: BN leaders know that the personal approval ratings of prime minister Najib Tun Razak do not mean that the people have learned to love again the ruling coalition they rebuffed at the last general election. But if the opposition cannot recapture the spirit with which they effervesced only three years ago, their task is going to be to maintain their gains rather than push forward to take Putra Jaya, the nation's administrative capital. Anwar and his party, meanwhile, have become the weakest link. This was not how it was meant to be.
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and London.