Road's End for Malaysia's Reform Coalition?
Internal bickering, differing aims may spell breakup of Pakatan Harapan coalition
By: Dennis Ignatius
Pakatan Harapan, the reform coalition that won the 2018 national elections in Malaysia, driving the ruling national coalition from power after 70 years of unbroken rule only to fumble its way out of national leadership, appears finally to have come apart — perhaps for good.
The issue at hand is a seemingly minor one, a decision by Parti Keadilian Rakyat, the moderate urban Malay-majority party headed Anwar Ibrahim, to ditch the Pakatan Harapan logo in favor of its own brand, blowing the lid off long-simmering disagreements within the coalition. Paralyzed by internal differences on issues of leadership and strategy as well as mutual suspicion and personal acrimony, Pakatan Harapan is barely holding together.
The possible collapse of the coalition has considerable significance for the country at a time when the national coalition headed by the deeply corrupt United Malays National Organization has solidified its return to power and, by all appearances, is seeking a way to keep former Prime Minister Najib Razak out of jail despite his already having been convicted and sentenced to 12 years for his part in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, in which at least US$4.6 billion was lost to theft and mismanagement.
The slide of the country into corruption is exemplified by UMNO leaders’ refusal to discipline Chief Commissioner Azam Baki, the head of the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission, who was found to have been trading millions of ringgit worth of stock in violation of the law. As an example of the deepening malaise in the country, police arrested 80 protesters last week when a crowd took to the streets to protest the refusal to deal with Baki.
Assurances by opposition leader Anwar and other PKR officials that Pakatan Harapan remains as united as ever despite the use of separate logos are at odds with reality.
The coalition presidential council was evenly split on the issue – PKR and the United Progressive Kinabalu Organization in favor, the moderate Islamist Amanah and the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party against. Both the DAP and Amanah have since done little to hide their anger with Parti Keadilan over the move. Penang deputy chief minister P Ramasamy, outspoken as always, slammed the move as “wrong and superficial,” adding that “if PKR does not trust the coalition’s logo, then what is the point of having the coalition in the first place?”
Whatever Anwar may say publicly, there is no escaping the fact that his party’s relationship with the DAP is in tatters. The animus against “the Lims” – DAP leader Lim Kit Siang and his son Lim Guan Eng – is particularly evident. It is evident that PKR leaders remain bitter that the Lims were less than supportive of Anwar when he was challenging Mahathir Mohamad for the top job in the waning days of the administration. They allege – and not without reason – that even when it became clear that Mahathir was up to his old tricks, the DAP continued to support Mahathir.
And later, when it became clear that Mahathir was finished, the Lims opted to support Shafie Apdal, who heads the Sabah-based Warisan (Heritage) party instead of Anwar. DAP national organizing secretary Anthony Loke’s recent remarks that the PH coalition should not just be about Anwar becoming prime minister has further fuelled suspicions about the DAP’s commitment to Anwar.
Additionally, many in PKR have also come to the conclusion that being too close to the DAP is not helpful when it comes to soliciting Malay votes. Anwar himself hinted at this when he ruminated, in the wake of PH’s disastrous performance in December state elections in Malacca, that his multiracial coalition had been unable to counter the narrative that the Chinese would dominate the country if PH returned to power.
“We know that it is not true and we have denied this in the 22 months that we were in government but we have not been able to convince the people,” he said. Continuing, he added that “racial issues against the coalition had been too ingrained and difficult to shake off.”
Anwar’s message was clear: the rejection of the DAP by Malay voters had hurt Pakatan Harapan. It is an important issue for PKR as more than 50 percent of PKR seats are dependent on the Malay vote. As one source put it, it would be suicide to go into an election these days with the DAP as a partner. The use of the PKR logo in Johor is one consequence of this thinking.
It is quite apparent, therefore, that PKR is now intent on charting a more independent course in pursuit of its ‘reformasi’ agenda under Anwar’s leadership. Cooperation with other parties will be geared towards an agreement on seat allocations and premised upon parliamentary support for an Anwar administration. As one senior PKR leader put it, “It’s a separation, not a divorce.”
The DAP view of Anwar is no less uncharitable. Anwar is seen as someone who has lost his ability to inspire voters, lacks the skills to forge a broad-based coalition and provide compelling leadership. As Ramasamy bluntly put it, it’s about “the caliber of leadership…”. The call by another DAP stalwart to “put aside personal agendas so that we can push forward a more compelling strategy, with a larger political narrative put in place,” is yet another indication of the DAP’s frustration with Anwar’s leadership.
The upcoming Johor state elections will be an important barometer of the validity of all the arguments now in play. In 2018, PKR won 7 of the 12 seats it contested. This time it is hoping to contest in 20 seats. Even those within the party, however, are not optimistic about their chances. If PKR performs as badly in Johor as it did in Malacca and Sarawak, Anwar’s leadership will again be called into question while the PKR brand itself will be further diminished.
For the DAP too, Johor will be crucial. In the 2018 state elections, it won all 14 of the seats it contested but, as both Malacca and Sarawak have shown, it has lost a lot of non-Malay support since. And this time around, the non-Malay vote might be even further divided, especially if no agreement is reached with the newly formed youth-oriented Malaysia United Democratic Association, known as Muda, and Warisan on seat allocations.
What all this means is that a badly fractured opposition will be squaring off in Johor against an increasingly resurgent UMNO. Within both the DAP and PKR, there is nothing but gloom with many believing that not just Johor but GE15, due in 2023, itself might be lost already. Perhaps it will take a crushing electoral defeat for both parties to start reinventing themselves, bringing in a new generation of leaders and rebuilding cooperation.
For the millions of Malaysians who supported Pakatan Harapan, the unraveling of the coalition is a huge disappointment. While Mahathir might have engineered the collapse of the PH administration, it’s disheartening that PKR and DAP – the coalition’s main pillars – have allowed their differences to get in the way of building that better Malaysia that all want to see.
Dennis Ignatius, a former Malaysian ambassador and senior government figure, is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel