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BN crushes Anwar’s coalition! Resounding victory for BN! Landslide victory in Melaka! The headlines said it all. Whichever way you look at it, Melaka was a huge setback for Pakatan Harapan (PH). The coalition contested all 28 seats but won only 5. PKR, the core of PH, lost all the 11 seats it contested.  Even the DAP suffered a significant setback, losing half the seats it contested. Of course, the writing was on the wall but the PH leadership has had its head in the sand for quite some time now. 

PH’s decision to support the government of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri with its September 13th MOU apparently did not go down well with the electorate. While PH leaders may have had the best of intentions, many think that PH needlessly neutered itself for nothing more than a fistful of false promises. Honestly, who really cares whether the leader of the opposition has official status or not or how many select committees are formed?

To make matters worse, PH failed to take a strong stand on critical issues contained in both the 12thMalaysia Plan and the 2022 budget. They complained loudly about the injustice of it all and protested the discriminatory approaches that premised both documents but then did little to oppose it. Both the 12MP and the budget (first reading) passed without much fuss. Even on other issues – the curb on alcohol sales and 4D lotteries, for example – the opposition failed to act decisively. It gives the impression of an opposition in disarray, outmanoeuvred at every turn by a prime minister who promises much but delivers just about nothing.

In many ways, the problem with PH has to do with leadership or the lack thereof. Anwar Ibrahim has simply failed to distinguish himself as a decisive leader. One would have thought that someone who has waited and planned so long for a shot at the top job would have hit the ground running. Instead, he has failed to offer voters a compelling vision, failed to articulate a coherent strategy to win power and failed to provide the leadership that is needed to position the opposition as a viable alternative.

Anwar put the blame for PH’s poor performance in Melaka on the propaganda put out by both UMNO and Perikatan Nasional that if PH ruled, the Chinese community would dominate the Malays. Why is he so surprised? After all, the Malay versus Chinese issue has been a staple of Malaysian politics for decades. The real issue is how is PH going to overcome this challenge? Thus far, they do not seem to have any answers and that is a huge problem going forward. 

Internal differences are also beginning to sap PH of its vitality. While PH leaders put on a brave face in public, divisions between PKR and the DAP are growing. There was sharp disagreement over whether to accept party hoppers as candidates in the Melaka elections, with PKR and Amanah supporting their inclusion and the DAP adamantly opposed. They are now hopelessly divided on seat allocations for the Sarawak state election.

Statements by the likes of Ong Kian Min and Liew Chin Tong about what went wrong in Melaka and what should have been done are seen as criticism of Anwar’s leadership. More telling was the statement by Anthony Loke that PH “must stop saying that there is no one else besides Anwar or we will be stuck in a dead end”. It is an indication that many in the DAP are simply frustrated with Anwar – he won’t lead and he won’t step aside. The longer the DAP stays tethered to a leader who is now increasingly unelectable, the more the disgruntlement will grow.

Discontentment with Anwar’s leadership is also growing within his own party. PKR used to be about ‘reformasi’; now, no one is sure what its priorities are. The party badly needs to rejuvenate itself, but few expect it to happen for so long as Anwar remains.  Not a few potential leaders have opted to sit it out until Anwar leaves. 

The DAP too is not without its problems. Anthony Loke’s statement on Anwar was met with a chorus of criticism from within his own party. Ronnie Liu who is a central executive committee member called it “dishonourable” while P. Ramasamy (also on the executive committee) described it as “premature and infantile adventurism”.  

It suggests that the once solid unity within the DAP is fraying as a potential leadership battle shapes up. It is no secret that many second-echelon leaders in particular want Lim Guan Eng to step aside. The serious corruption charges he faces are a major distraction. But will the party be able to unite around Antony Loke, the presumptive heir-apparent?

All told, Pakatan Harapan’s future prospects do not appear to look good. If they cannot make headway at a time when so many voters are economically stressed, when discontentment with the prevailing situation is high, how could they ever hope to do well in GE15? And what does it say about their chances if they cannot successfully compete against a party still led by leaders struggling with a slew of corruption charges, if they cannot compete against a convicted felon?

Unless Pakatan Harapan can quickly reinvent itself, make itself relevant to a plurality of voters, GE15 may be lost already. Melaka should tell us that voters will not be energised and inspired to go out in sufficient numbers to vote – and vote for PH – if they cannot fathom what PH really stands for and how a vote for PH will make a real difference in their lives. Elections are always about choices; thus far the PH option is far from appealing.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 29th November 2021]