What a mess we are in – no prime minister, a deeply divided parliament, a highly polarized populace and an economy on the edge of recession. How did we go from dancing in the streets in joyous celebration over the rebirth of our democracy to facing the possibility of a new kind of dictatorship?
In a word: Mahathir. This was a crisis entirely of his making.
He could have built a strong, stable and workable coalition after GE14. He had the numbers on his side; he had unparalleled goodwill and support; he had the most multiracial coalition that was ever elected to office.
There was general consensus and popular support too for the kind of policies that should be pursued (the reformasi agenda). It was a solid foundation to build that Malaysia Baru we all so desperately wanted and voted for.
But Mahathir being Mahathir, he played his games and wove his web of political intrigue.
To the chagrin of his partners, he stacked the cabinet with members of his own party. He brought Azmin into the cabinet over the objections of Anwar, empowered him and turned him loose to harass and harangue Anwar. He cast doubts about the succession plan and acquiesced to the campaign – including Hadi’s recent confidence motion – for him to complete his full term.
He unashamedly courted the very UMNO politicians that so many despised in a bid to outflank PKR and DAP. And when that failed, he played the race card against his own coalition partners, sponsoring the Malay Dignity Congress, endorsing all the asinine talk that the Malays had lost power, that Malay disunity had allowed the DAP to become powerful.
Why would a prime minister with a comfortable majority in parliament, with a multiracial, multiparty coalition behind him see the need to play such invidious games unless he had other ambitions?
As a direct consequence of these constant political intrigues, the Pakatan Harapan coalition became gradually unstable. PKR, DAP and Amanah, worried about what he was up to, became increasingly uncomfortable with his leadership though right to the end, they were extremely wary of openly challenging him in order to preserve the coalition.
Even when things reached a climax at last Friday’s PH council meeting, his coalition partners bowed to his will and allowed him to set his own departure date, but even that was apparently not enough to stop the intrigues.
It looked like we were heading towards a Malay unity government last weekend. The sudden gathering of PPBM, UMNO, PAS, Warisan and GPS leaders in Kuala Lumpur was not just happenstance; someone with great authority must have summoned them.
But it fell apart at the last moment reportedly because UMNO MPs would not abandon their party to join PPBM. While Azmin and Muhyiddin were apparently ready to accept UMNO – tainted leadership and all – Mahathir was adamantly opposed to the “crooks and kleptocrats” (as one of Mahathir’s men put it) joining the unity government. In the end, Sabah and Sarawak leaders too got cold feet.
When it became clear that things were spinning out of control, Mahathir hastily withdrew and subsequently resigned though not apparently with the intention of departing.
Whichever way you look at it, Mahathir doesn’t come out smelling sweet. He plotted against his own coalition and is now distancing himself from the plot after it went awry. And now, ever the consummate politician, he is trying to profit from the chaos he created by calling for a non-party government under his leadership.
Having failed to build a new coalition, he is now asking (going by his address to the nation last night) for the right to rule unhindered by coalition politics and without obligation to the elected representatives of the people in parliament assembled. And with a government entirely of his choosing and completely beholden to him.
More than that, he is demanding that he alone be allowed to determine what’s best for the nation and govern accordingly. It is in effect, a demand to cede power to him at least till the next election. He calculates he can survive because parliament is too divided to stand up to him.
He should not be allowed to get away with it. It is undemocratic. It is unprincipled. And it puts too much power in the hands of a man with a terrible record of abusing it.
He returned to power in May 2018 on the promise of change and reform and as part of a team. If he cannot remain committed to both, he should resign.
With him out of the way, Anwar might well have an opportunity to cobble together a majority in parliament and form a government. Anwar will, of course, have to prove that he has the smarts to negotiate and convince other parties (especially Warisan and GPS) that he is the right man for the job.
It won’t be easy. He is himself a divisive figure. His support not just among the majority Malay population but across all racial lines is mixed at best. However, if he has the numbers going for him, he should be given the opportunity to form the government.
If not, another general election with all the uncertainty and nightmare scenarios that it might entail will be unavoidable.
Our democracy is once again at a crossroads. Many will, no doubt, be tempted to accede to Mahathir’s demand for one-man rule for the sake of security, stability and a return to economic growth. The possibility of UMNO-PAS coming back to power through fresh elections and perhaps reprieving the crooks and kleptocrats might also be just too much to countenance.
Anwar might provide a middle path between the two extremes of one-man rule or rule by kleptocrats. He is certainly not perfect (neither is Mahathir) but he represents a democratic option that might give the nation the time it needs to take a step back, to refocus, to recalibrate.
Ben Franklin, one of the fathers of American independence once noted that those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
We should all think carefully about the choices before us and find a way to make our views known.
[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur | 27th February 2020]