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Pakatan Harapan spats more than just teething issues

Some analysts say that recent public spats between Pakatan Harapan leaders are ‘symptomatic of a coalition government with components that have yet to truly unite and find their footing’. Will PH’s component parties eventually find unity, given that their alliance has been more a marriage of convenience than one united by common political beliefs.

Pakatan Harapan spats more than just teething issues

The anticipated accession of Anwar Ibrahim to the premiership in 2020 may well change PH’s political direction, says the author, but unless the component parties reconcile fundamental differences in their vision for Malaysia, instability within the PH will likely persist.

Following a seismic electoral victory, Malaysia’s new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has faced difficulty navigating the challenges of coalition government.

Some analysts have noted that recent public spats between the coalition’s leaders are ‘symptomatic of a coalition government with components that have yet to truly unite and find their footing’.

The question then is whether PH’s component parties will eventually find unity, given that their alliance has been more a marriage of convenience than one united by common political beliefs.

Consider the public disagreements between Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Bersatu and the other three main component parties, Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Amanah.

Aside from the dispute between Bersatu’s Syed Saddiq and DAP leaders over the recent violence at a Hindu temple in Selangor, there have been concerns about Dr Mahathir’s co-opting of former United Malays National Organisation (Umno) legislators.

This has in part led to PKR stalwart Nurul Izzah Anwar resigning as party vice president and relinquishing her federal government roles in protest.

A bitter internal election within PKR has also been seen as a renewed proxy war between the Malaysian Prime Minister and his heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, as staunch Anwar loyalist Rafizi Ramli and Azmin Ali – seen to be close to Dr Mahathir – jostled for the deputy presidency of the party.

While the PH owes a large part of its success to Dr Mahathir’s political charisma and Bersatu’s ability to win rural Malay votes, to call them “unusual bedfellows” would be an understatement.

The founding PH parties – DAP, PKR and Amanah – stand on a platform of Reformasi, which calls not only for an end to political corruption, but also a more democratic and multiracial approach to governance.

Many of these ideals were formed in opposition to Dr Mahathir’s first premiership, which was associated with cronyism, authoritarianism and ethnic chauvinism.

While Mr Anwar claims that Dr Mahathir has now accepted the Reformasi struggle, recent developments such as diplomatic disputes with Singapore, the co-optation of former Umno members into Bersatu and the call for a third national car suggests that the “changed man” may not be so different after all.

Bersatu in fact brands itself as a “Malay-nationalist party” that is an “older and better version of Umno”. It is the only PH party that does not accept non-Malays as full members and office-holders and appeals to nostalgia for strong economic growth under Dr Mahathir’s first premiership to secure its political base.

There thus exists a fundamental contradiction between the values, beliefs and outlook of Bersatu and the other PH component parties.

Ideological clashes have in fact led to dissolution of previous coalitions – Barisan Alternatif (1998-2004) and Pakatan Rakyat (2008-2015) collapsed over differences between the Islamism of then coalition partner Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and DAP’s commitment to a multicultural “Malaysian Malaysia”.

The present coalition now faces greater difficulty staying united, as Bersatu has ideological differences with not only the DAP, but also with PKR – the party of Mr Anwar and Reformasi – as well.

These tensions will likely be exacerbated by the recent defection of 17 Umno lawmakers to Bersatu. These moves will strengthen Bersatu’s influence within PH, allowing Dr Mahathir to more easily implement his pet policies while giving the old regime a voice in the new coalition.

Worse, the questionable backgrounds of some of these individuals – notably Rahim Thamby Chik, who allegedly committed statutory rape against a minor and distributed a sex tape to incriminate Mr Anwar – sit badly with PH’s commitment to clean government, potentially leading to fears of  “coalition capture” among the other component parties.

The Malaysian electorate which voted for change in the May election appears to be growing disillusioned with the “Eighties-Redux” of Mahathirism that the present government appears to be embarking on.

PKR’s Mr Rafizi recently claimed that PH’s approval ratings have fallen by around 20 per cent since the election, partly because the coalition is still to deliver on its promise of economic recovery.

While it is not unusual for governments to lose popularity following an election, the drop appears to stem in part from fears among PH supporters that the “Pact of Hope” is merely becoming another Barisan Nasional.

This may create further division within the coalition, as the other component parties may take a harder line on disagreements with Bersatu to secure their electoral bases.

While Umno’s weakness has been highlighted as a source of consolation in mitigating popular dissatisfaction with the PH, it is worth remembering that moves towards liberalisation are often followed by a conservative backlash.

Backed into a corner, the party could be tempted to pursue a rightward turn – perhaps in cooperation with PAS – to pander to lingering insecurity about Malay rights among rural voters.

The recent partnership between Umno and PAS in organising a massive rally in Kuala Lumpur opposing Malaysia’s possible ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is perhaps a sign of things to come.

If PH cannot resolve its lingering disunity and make strides towards improving the economy, it could open the door to greater right-wing populist influence in Malaysian politics.

Failure to deliver on the change demanded by the Malaysian electorate in GE14 could disillusion voters, prompting them to seek more radical alternatives.

An electoral alliance between Umno and PAS, should one be formed, could tap into this discontent by appealing to ethno-religious identity politics.

If this alliance make significant electoral gains in future polls, we may observe a more radical and populist form of ethnic and religious politics in Malaysian politics.

This could lead to greater division and political instability in a country still divided by communal politics and increasingly facing new challenges from growing Islamic conservatism in recent years.

The anticipated accession of Anwar Ibrahim to the premiership in 2020 may well change PH’s political direction.

But unless the parties reconcile fundamental differences in their vision for Malaysia, instability within the PH will likely persist, leaving Malaysia’s hope for Reformasi hanging by a thread.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Ng Qi Siang is a fourth-year History major at Yale-NUS College with a keen interest in Malaysian politics.

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