Malaysia's opposition alliance under threat

Malaysia's opposition alliance under threat
Selangor Menteri Besar Abdul Khalid Ibrahim (left) was fired from PKR last Saturday on the grounds that he breached party rules for refusing to make way for Dr Wan Azizah to take his place as the next chief minister. Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (right), president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which has been feuding with its allies, the Democratic Action Party and Parti Islam SeMalaysia, over the Selangor Menteri Besar seat.

The spat about who should take the Chief Minister (Menteri Besar) role in the Malaysian state of Selangor is threatening to undo Malaysia's opposition coalition.

Called the Pakatan Rakyat (PR), the latter is an alliance of three parties: the Malay-led Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which draws its support from conservative Muslims.

Many Malaysians would like to see the PR become a solid counter-weight to the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN). But recent postings on news portals that are often seen as critical to the BN government indicate that public confidence is running thin. One year after the country's general election, the PR coalition stands on fragile ground.

Are these developments telltale signs that the PR coalition is in crisis?

The contrast with the BN, which managed to hold on to power for 50 years without breaking up, is certainly sharp.

There are no easy answers. Malaysian politics is, and always has been, founded on coalitional politics. Dr Arendt Lijphart, the great guru of politics, came up with a term that best describes Malaysia's brand of politics - consociational democracy.

Such a democracy demands that political elites be able to turn a plural and fragmented political culture into a stable democracy. To do so, political elites have to strike a balance between competing demands.

Given its plural nature, political balancing in the Malaysian context is no easy feat. How has the BN coalition handled Malaysia's mosaic of interests so well for more than 50 years? I think there are three reasons.

Benefit of institutional memory

The first is that the BN's elites understand the costs to political fragmentation. Observers often fail to understand that the BN has benefited from institutional learning and has acquired substantial institutional memory. The BN and its predecessor, the Alliance Party, had the experience of seeing first-hand, the cost to political fragmentation.

The struggle for Malaya's independence in the 1950s called for collaboration and consensus between the various ethnic groups, while the fight against communist insurgencies called for greater political cohesion. The ethnic riots that led to Singapore's eventual separation from Malaysia in 1965 demanded yet more inclusiveness, while the bloody riots in May 1969 forced major changes in economic and social policy.

In other words, institutional learning over the years helped the BN understand the cost of political fragmentation. BN leaders have developed mechanisms to respond to crisis or prevent potential crisis. The PR, on the other hand, lacks such institutional memory. It is therefore not surprising that the PR adopts an adventurist attitude when dealing with potentially volatile ethnic and religious issues.

Need to transcend cleavages

Second, the BN also understands the need to transcend ethnic cleavages and to rally - as much as possible - disparate sectional interests to a common end. Attempting to transcend ethnic cleavages in particular has become a feature of the BN.

As far back as Malaya's first federal election in 1955, the Alliance Party's United Malays National Organisation (Umno) agreed that candidates from the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) should contest in Malay dominated seats under the Alliance ticket.

Such give and take has been a BN trademark. Its elites still talk of the need for kongsi kuasa (power sharing). In the last election, for example, the parliamentary seat of Tanjung Piai had a Malay majority, yet the BN fielded a Chinese candidate from the MCA who eventually won. Also, despite the MCA refusal to take up Cabinet posts due to the party's poor election showing, BN leaders, understanding the need to transcend cleavages, insisted on allocating ministerial posts for the MCA.

This understanding of the need to rise above communal interests for the greater good is still new to the PR. The last election, for example, saw candidates from PAS and DAP contesting in the same constituency.

Third, BN's political elites have shown a greater commitment to the maintenance of the political system in order to ensure cohesion and stability. In trying to do this, it is often seen by critics as erratic, ambiguous and indecisive.

Take Prime Minister Najib Razak's insistence on the 10-point agreement that allows the term "Allah" to be used by Christians in Sabah and Sarawak despite a court ruling which rejects the Catholic Church's application to use Allah in its newsletter The Herald.

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