Pakatan proving to be a viable and capable alternative

But we have had almost a year with almost half the states in our federation under Pakatan governance, and we are nowhere near the disaster which Barisan promised us would occur if we voted in a Pakatan government.

John Lee, The Malaysian Insider

Pakatan Rakyat is now facing its first serious electoral test since its formation. How has it performed so far? While the ride has been bumpy, I believe that any fair yardstick must give Pakatan due credit for holding together and pursuing the agenda its supporters voted for. Pakatan Rakyat remains a viable political coalition, and offers a much stronger alternative to the electorate than its individual component parties did in the general election of March 2008.

The recent general election was actually a bit of an aberration in that for the first time in living memory there was actually a discernible core in all the manifestos of the different opposition parties. All three Pakatan parties have committed themselves to battling racism, reforming our government and improving access to economic opportunities. These were the three main planks of their platforms, and are what the voters of five states and Peninsular Malaysia at the federal level voted for.

Now, it is easy to think that Pakatan might be in danger of falling apart because of personal differences their politicians may have, or even policy differences. But I think we are really holding Pakatan to an unfair standard here. Barisan Nasional does not have a coherent platform to speak of, and its component parties bicker incessantly.

One thing Pakatan has going for it is that all its parties agree on the three problems they see facing the country, and more or less how to solve them. Barisan’s platform is predicated on denying the existence of these problems, and seems to have more of a vague theme running along the lines of “don’t bother switching, you have it so good”. Since before the March elections, and even more ever since then, Barisan parties have openly bickered on important policy issues. Umno says one thing about race, MCA says another; Umno says one thing about religion, MCA says another; Umno and MCA say one thing about the Internal Security Act, Gerakan and PPP say another. Barisan now has nothing to unite itself on except antipathy towards Pakatan, and a ragtag bunch of Pakatan-haters does not a coalition make.

The most pressing issue facing Pakatan at the moment is the struggle over hudud laws. Noted liberal Pas vice-president Husam Musa recently promised Pas supporters that it will continue to press for enactment of hudud laws at the federal level; the DAP has been equally adamant in reassuring its supporters that it will oppose hudud laws. The PKR position remains an enigma, but I imagine in its traditional spirit of compromise that when the issue comes to a vote, it will let its MPs vote freely. At first glance, this lack of Pakatan unity seems troubling.

But the true test of a political coalition is not singleminded ideological coherence; the true test is whether the component parties can give and take enough to govern effectively together. Husam explicitly stated that hudud laws would only be passed if other Pakatan parties consented; this is and always has been the Pas position, since even before the March general election. He did not say that Pas would quit the potential Pakatan government, or withhold support on other key issues if the theoretical hudud Bill failed. Pas is merely saying that it supports hudud laws; it is not saying that it will upset the wishes of the electorate at large by overturning the Pakatan agenda and quitting the coalition if it cannot get its way.

True reason for concern would be Pas talking of quitting Pakatan if the other parties refuse to accept the hudud laws. But this is not the case; Pas respects the right of other Pakatan component parties to differ, and has taken pains to assure everyone that it will not force the hand of its fellow Pakatan partners. To put this in perspective, Britain is governed by one party: Labour. Did Labour have a consensus about sending the young men and women of its armed forces to die in Iraq? Ministers quit the Labour government and numerous MPs voted against the party line in 2003 to voice their opposition. Yet did anyone muse about the possible collapse of the Labour government? No, because it was clear that in spite of their strong differences, the Labour government still had the support of its backbenchers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with individual component parties or even politicians taking different stands on important issues; that is the essence of democracy.

The real test of Pakatan’s staying power will be its viability to govern. Before March 2008, there was little way to tell how a Pakatan government would function — if it would function at all. But we have had almost a year with almost half the states in our federation under Pakatan governance, and we are nowhere near the disaster which Barisan promised us would occur if we voted in a Pakatan government. The occasional mishap under the Pakatan government in Selangor can hardly measure up to the scandals of the previous Barisan Nasional state government; the combined government in Perak has been working surprisingly effectively and efficiently even under a Pas menteri besar; Penang keeps moving forward with little friction, the occasional Umno-provoked demonstration aside. The three most developed states in the country have been governed with remarkably little muss or fuss by Pakatan; it is true that things in the states are far from perfect, but they show no signs of collapse, and they continue to develop and grow regardless of the party in power.

Every indication so far is that Pakatan remains a viable political grouping, with mature leaders willing to work together in spite of their differences to achieve their common ends. Before March 8, not many of us could seriously say we believed the Pakatan parties could hold together and govern; it is clear now that they are capable of doing as much, if not more. If the Malaysian people still hunger for the reforms, the change, the equality of opportunity we have been promised by our politicians from both Pakatan and Barisan, we have every reason now to seriously consider Pakatan a viable and capable alternative government.

John Lee is a second-year student of economics at Dartmouth College in the United States. He has been thinking aloud since 2005 at