Wake-up call for Pakatan Rakyat

So, PAS needs to get off its high horse and realise that it doesn’t actually have that much Malay support (compared with Umno) and it only has non-Malay support because of the non-Malay disenchantment with Umno, not because they are enamoured of PAS.

Written by Oon Yeoh, The Edge 

The Bagan Pinang by-election, which saw Umno’s Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad winning with a whopping majority of 5,435 votes and sweeping all the eight voting streams, should be a wake-up call for Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

First of all, to quote DAP leader Lim Kit Siang, it “should destroy the myth entertained by any quarter that PR is embarked on an invincible path to victory in the next general election whether national or state”.

Yes, PR had previously won seven by-elections in Peninsular Malaysia. On the surface that looks impressive but when you look a little deeper, this is what you see.
All but one of those seven by-elections were in seats where PR was the incumbent (only Kuala Terengganu was an Umno-held seat). At best it proves that PR can hold on to its own turf. It’s still isn’t obvious that it can win new ground.

In the recent by-elections in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau, the Malay support for Umno increased. And in the overwhelmingly Malay seat of Manek Urai, PAS got by with a razor-thin margin of 65 votes. PR might have the support of the non-Malays but the BN has a strong core of Malay supporters that it can rely on.

As for the non-Malay support for PR, that might not even be all that true anymore. While the general consensus is that the Chinese are still overwhelmingly supporting PR, the same cannot be said for the Indians.

In Bukit Selambau, there was a slight rise in Indian votes for BN. The Bagan Pinang by-election seems to indicate the tide is indeed starting to turn as far as Indian votes are concerned. BN had won in all 19 polling districts, including the three dominated by Indian voters (who made up 20% of the voters there).

So, what does this mean for the three component parties of PR?

PAS should realise by now that it is not necessarily a strong alternative for Umno among the Malay grassroots. In Bukit Gantang for example, its candidate Nizar Jamaluddin won with the help of overwhelming support from the non-Malays, especially the Chinese. It should also realise that when it wins in mixed constituencies, it is not because the Chinese love PAS but because they are voting against Umno.

So, PAS needs to get off its high horse and realise that it doesn’t actually have that much Malay support (compared with Umno) and it only has non-Malay support because of the non-Malay disenchantment with Umno, not because they are enamoured of PAS.

If it wants to be a real party for all Malaysians (in line with its “PAS for All” slogan) it needs to embrace the kind of progressive politics espoused by the likes of Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad and Khalid Samad. Not the kind of conservatism exemplified by Hasan Ali and Nasharuddin Mat Isa.

DAP has no problem holding on to Chinese support but it has great difficulty gaining Malay support and its hold on Indian support is in question. It made a smart move embracing the Indian community and fielding up to 30 Indian candidates in the last general election.  

It also elevated key Indian leaders to high positions – making Dr P Ramasamy a deputy chief minister in Penang and V Sivakumar the Perak state assembly speaker – after the elections. But it needs to do more. The Kampung Buah Pala issue, which was badly mishandled from a public-relations standpoint, certainly didn’t help DAP’s image amongst the Indians.

Also, DAP must realise that the number of parliamentary seats it can potentially win in the peninsula is capped by the number of seats it managed to negotiate for in the last general election, which is 36. In contrast PKR and PAS contested in 62 and 65 seats respectively.

To grow – and indeed to avoid potentially becoming the smallest party in the coalition – it needs to look to East Malaysia. According to elections expert Wong Chin Huat, in a best case scenario, DAP could pick up another 15 seats there.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the de facto leader of the PR coalition – by virtue of its leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim being the only figure all three parties can accept to lead the coalition – is ironically the weakest link in the coalition.  

Its elected representatives have caused many problems for the coalition, with the lastest being the decision by the Lunas assemblyman to go independent. The Penanti assemblyman in Penang and the Bukit Selambau assemblyman in Kedah resigned amidst allegations of corruption and personal problems, respectively. And not forgetting the two Perak “frogs” who became independents supportive of BN after being charged with corruption.

Anwar himself admits to the weakest-link argument, saying in Augutst: “I concede that there is a flaw in our vetting system. We rushed to choose candidates to contest in the last general election but I promise that this will be improved.”

But it’s not just the vetting system that’s problematic. Anwar needs to show more leadership and do away with the notion of a shadow panel cabinet and get down to the tough business of forming a proper shadow cabinet. Yes, it involves lots of horse-trading and arguments with other component-party leaders. And yes, it will subject PR to scrutiny and criticism when the shadow cabinet is unveiled. But if you want to position yourself as a prime-minister-in-waiting, you have to be PM-like and have the guts to form a shadow cabinet.

He also needs to prepare his party, and his coalition, for life without him. Why? He could very well end up in jail again. And even if he doesn’t, he is after all, only human. You never know when your time is up. It is highly irresponsible for him not to put in place a Plan B.

Having said all the above, of course it also needs to be said that one should not over-read the Bagan Pinang by-election. There were some anomalies. The postal voters made up a big portion of the electorate there and Isa is particularly influential and popular. This kind of big landslide victory is not going to be easy for BN to replicate in other parts of the country.

But it’s a rude awakening and a good opportunity for PR to wake up and smell the coffee. The path to Putrajaya is not a smooth one. There are plenty of stumbling blocks along the way, and it’s got its work cut out if it wants to make it there by 2013.