22 Dec 2015
COMMENT Today marks the three-month anniversary of Pakatan Harapan – the revamped opposition coalition that is having difficulty getting off the ground. It is supposed to bring about hope, to galvanise like-minded Malaysians in the spirit of reform and cooperation to offer an electoral alternative. It is failing badly. As the year end approaches, it is valuable to examine why.
The fact that Harapan was formed out of disappointment with Pakatan Rakyat has marked the new coalition. Attention still centres on who was responsible for Pakatan Rakyat’s collapse, with the blame game a persistent dynamic. At the same time, there is denial that Pakatan Rakyat is over, with some individuals and parties unwilling to let go of the past.
These legacies of the past are debilitating Harapan. Rather than look forward, opposition parties in Harapan are continually focused on old wounds and battles. Fighting old friends now enemies is the norm, as old wounds are still raw. DAP attacks PAS. PKR insists that it can work with everyone (while in effect it is working with none as it stymies its supposed partners).
Parti Amanah Negara attacks its old colleagues to show it is not PAS as it focuses on justifying itself. So much negative energy is being spent fighting rather than elsewhere. For now, it appears as if Harapan is divided rather than united. Some even doubt whether there is a working partnership.
This is being compounded by a serious erosion of trust within the opposition itself. When members of a party have to use audio recordings of meetings to keep other members of the same party in check, something is wrong. Inside parties and among different parties, the trust erosion has corroded relationships. Ties are deteriorating further from persistent battling. As long as the opposition focuses on its past, it will not be able to move forward.
This new opposition coalition suffers from a lack of viable leadership. Harapan has opted to have jailed Anwar Ibrahim as its leader, rather than offer a new option to the public. While the injustice surrounding the jailing of the former opposition leader is real, and the calls for his release have increased and will continue, the reality is that Anwar is not in a position to lead the opposition or to serve in a capacity as leader in Parliament or in government any time soon.
Leaders matter – they win support and most importantly, they lead through making the hard decisions to bringing a diverse opposition together. Anwar’s lack of presence is being keenly felt, as evident of the infighting and lack of cohesion not only in his party PKR but in the opposition as a whole.
If the opposition wants to be at all viable in the next election and Harapan is to be taken seriously, there needs to be alternative leadership that unifies the coalition, rather than divides it. This leader needs to be viable to the electorate as a whole. Voters need to know who they are voting for and why, as Harapan has to move from a holding pattern to moving ahead.
The highest chances of releasing Anwar from jail lie with the opposition winning over the national government.
A power game
The leadership problem has worsened as individual parties have moved simultaneously into defensive silo mode, assuring that they strengthen their own party’s position for upcoming election. This is most obvious in the announcements of candidates in Sarawak, where rather than compromise or engage in quiet dialogue, the practice has been to demand in public and provoke.
Each individual party wants to assure its fortunes and given the insecurity in the current political climate, the approach means look out for themselves rather than the opposition as a whole.
The contraction of cooperation is tied to an ongoing fight for dominance and relevance in Harapan. Unlike with Pakatan Rakyat, where all three parties brought different strengths to the coalition, the focus now is on what weaknesses they have. DAP is seen as too Chinese, too arrogant. PKR is seen as too fragmented, too selfish. Amanah is seen as lacking a base and clear direction.
All of the parties suffer from a lack of grassroots with the separation from PAS. Connectivity to the Malay grassroots is a particular problem. These shortcoming factors overshadow what they do bring to the partnership and the reality is that they are stronger together, rather than apart.
The opposition parties are spending time in a power game to win dominance in Harapan for the case of PKR and DAP, and for Amanah to make itself relevant and to distance itself from perceptions that it is controlled by other parties in Harapan, notably DAP.
As with the infighting tied to legacy issues, this expense of energy is also diverting the opposition from coalescing. Now, more than ever, as racial tensions and religious differences have heightened, the lack of a viable multi-racial alternative that brings Malaysians together rather than tear them apart is negatively shaping the political climate.
Public credibility gap
The biggest shortcoming of Harapan lies with the connection to voters. Three months on, it is not clear what Harapan stands for. It is just a vehicle for political power, a vehicle without the PAS wheel but essentially the same model without the hudud feature? Or is it something else? Is it a working multi-ethnic alternative?
The only common ground that appears apparent to voters is that it is made of people who want to stay in office and in Penang and Selangor stay in government. What exactly is the common ground of Harapan? It cannot just be about winning an election to get support from voters.
Harapan has yet to develop a clear platform or meaningfully engage with the public to explain what that platform might be. Within Harapan, Amanah in particular has yet to clearly define itself. The issues that voters care about are being ignored. Harapan is banking on the anger toward the incumbent Umno-led national government and hoping past support for the opposition will transfer to the new coalition.
Both of these assumptions are flawed; Harapan underestimates the rise of apathy and underestimates the important pull of hope that the opposition provided to some Malaysian voters. It underestimates the impact of the delineation exercise, with many of the parties going along with the process and abandoning substantive electoral reform to position their individual party.
It also underestimates the patronage power of an Umno-PAS relationship and overestimates the potential of these two Malay parties as reaching a level of cooperation that will alienate voters. Rather than work to win over the public, there is a sense of entitlement in Harapan that the public will come to them – a similar sentiment to that of BN that in many ways does little to differentiate Harapan from BN.
More than ever, after a difficult year, Malaysians are searching for hope, for the promise of a different future. Sadly, Harapan has yet to offer this option. The potential of Harapan remains alive. Hard work and hard decisions are needed to make this substantive. Giving Malaysians a meaningful electoral alternative will not happen until Harapan works to fulfil its name, to move beyond the past, to sort out its present and outline a clear future.
BRIDGET WELSH is a Senior Research Associate of the Center for East Asian Democracy at National Taiwan University, an Associate Fellow of The Habibie Center, a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University, and a Professor at Ipek University.