Fighting fire of its own making

KUALA LUMPUR - Its failure to win last year's hard-fought general election clearly still galls the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

The three-party coalition is convinced victory was stolen from its grasp because of an electoral system that favours the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN).

PR won 50.87 per cent of the vote nationwide. In Parliament, its presence grew from 82 seats to 89 seats. At state level, it retained control of Penang, Kelantan and Selangor.

"Our party won the popular vote. We should be the governing party," Mr Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), told reporters last week after a meeting with a United States presidential adviser.

If that lament resonated with voters after the May 5, 2013 polls, it no longer works on them today.

Public sympathy has been sorely tested in recent months as the PR was forced to firefight problems of its own making.

Take the recent tiff over hudud, the Islamic penal code which prescribes punishments such as amputation of limbs for theft. The issue has come up yet again, as one of the many iterations of the longstanding tension between PR components Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), with its Islamic state agenda, and the DAP, which opposes it.

It has been an issue since the DAP, PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) made an election pact in 2008. Though the PR stuck together well enough to romp home to its best-ever electoral result last year, the ideological differences never went away.

This time, the clash is over the PAS plan to implement hudud in the north-eastern state of Kelantan which it has governed since 1990. Its persistence has stirred up a hornet's nest within PR, with DAP veteran leader Lim Kit Siang calling it the "biggest crisis" since 2008.

This has less to do with any potential break-up of the PR, which has, after all, weathered similar storms, and more to do with a palpable sense of betrayal among some of its supporters.

"PAS has proven to be not as moderate as the PR represented them to be," said Mr Azhar Harun, a lawyer who writes on socio-political issues for news websites.

The PR's top leadership is struggling to resolve it. Last week, PR leader Anwar Ibrahim asked for more time for the parties to discuss the matter in a "healthy discourse". But it is not clear if he will be able to find a compromise.

The episode shows, yet again, how reliant the PR is on Datuk Seri Anwar to act as mediator and be the glue holding the coalition together.

But there is just one problem. He faces a possible five years in jail if he loses his final appeal after his 2012 acquittal for sodomy was overturned in March this year. With no possible successors in sight, his absence could leave the coalition in a serious situation.

Even so, public sympathy for Mr Anwar has been tempered by disquiet over the "Kajang Move" engineered by his PKR in February. Many saw it as a manipulation of the democratic system for personal gain.

It entailed a PKR assemblyman in Kajang resigning his seat to force a by-election which Mr Anwar would win, enabling him to take over as Selangor's Menteri Besar from Mr Khalid Ibrahim, who is estranged from the party.

The plan flopped when the sodomy conviction disqualified Mr Anwar. His wife Wan Azizah Ismail contested instead and won. And Mr Khalid remains Menteri Besar.

The whole saga did not endear the party to residents in Selangor especially when, soon after, millions of them were hit by water rationing that ended only last Thursday. Many blamed the state government for poor water management.

These are rocky times for the PR, which faces higher public expectations in its second term as what the coalition itself calls "a government-in-waiting".

There is also impatience with the PR, which has yet to come up with concrete ideas on Malaysia's economic direction, improving the education system or tackling corruption.

"Our opposition has proven to be 'the opposites', not the opposition," Mr Azhar said.

The PR's saving grace is that the states it runs are fairly well governed, in particular Penang, the darling of investors and tourists. Also, many still see BN as a worse option.

Analysts believe the PR would not suffer badly even if elections were held today.

"In order for public support to drain away, there needs to be an alternative," said Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan who runs the Ideas think-tank. "Its supporters may grumble but they will support the PR."

This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.

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