‘Third Force’ emerges on Malaysian poll scene

Backed by blogger Raja Petra; names top human rights lawyer as GE candidate

(The Straits Times) – Malaysia’s turbulent political landscape has just become more complicated as a ‘Third Force’ has emerged to offer itself as an alternative to either the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) or opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalitions.

The alternative political group gained credibility over the weekend when it named prominent human rights lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar as the first of the 30 candidates that it will field in the next general election.

Mr Malik Imtiaz, 40, is well known for his civil liberties work, and is also the president of the National Human Rights Society.

‘There is growing awareness of a need for a coherent independent voice in Parliament, as both sides are currently locked into highly politicised dynamics,’ he told The Straits Times, in explaining why he decided to run.

He said the PR had been too caught up in sniping at the other side to advance the reform agenda that gave it big wins in the 2008 general election.

The Third Force initiative arose from the public dismay over the defections of six Pakatan Rakyat MPs in the last two years. The PR had lost further ground in recent weeks when bitter internal leadership tussles marred its reformist image.

Besides Mr Malik Imtiaz, another one or two candidates will be named by the group in a few days.

Lawyer Haris Ibrahim, who is coordinating the group along with self-exiled blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, told The Straits Times that the full slate will be named by next month.

Most of them are lawyers and other professionals. ‘These are people who are reluctant to get involved in a political party set-up,’ he said.

The group will be coordinated and funded by a non-governmental organisation called the Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement. The movement is led by Raja Petra, who is now living in England in self-exile after being charged with sedition in Malaysia.

Neither Mr Haris nor Raja Petra will be candidates.

The choice of the respected Mr Malik Imtiaz as candidate signalled that this loose grouping could prove to be a serious player. Further, the group had played a key role in campaigning for PR in the 2008 general election which swept in record wins for the opposition.

Although labelled the ‘Third Force’, it does not plan to field candidates as independents as the first option. They will first be offered to PR as the aim is to ensure good candidates stand for election.

Mr Haris, however, did not rule out fielding them as independents if PR declined to accept these candidates.

Mr Ong Kian Ming, a political analyst, said PR would find it hard to reject these respected candidates if they did not have better ones within their own parties. He said there are several seats that could be easily won with quality candidates.

PR will be reluctant to hand over 30 of the most winnable seats, yet it also stands to lose in a three-corner fight as split votes will benefit BN.

The picture may be complicated further by the entry of other groups like Indian rights group Hindraf, and a new party to be led by former Cabinet minister Zaid Ibrahim. Datuk Zaid joined a tiny party on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia last month after leaving the opposition in a huff.

The next general election is due in 2013, but it is widely speculated it will be called within a year.