Burying the ghost of March 8

True, it was the people’s power that handed Penang, Perak, Kedah, Selangor and good old Kelantan to the opposition alliance, but the people’s power did not exactly originate from enlightened and savvy voters, but resentful ones defecting in massive droves from the Umno-Malay bulwark.

New Straits Times

IN the months following the flabbergasting results of the March 8, 2008 general election, all you could read, hear and gossip/rave/rant about was how the outcome was precipitated by a political tsunami, people’s power and desire for a new political history.

For the undiscerning, March 8 is the third anniversary of the day the bedfellows of PKR, Pas and DAP (and a supporting cast of smaller mosquito parties) exploited Barisan Nasional’s soft underbelly to engineer staggering electoral coups in five states — six if you count the Federal Territory — and amazingly won key parliamentary seats to plunder the BN’s treasured two-thirds dominance of the Dewan Rakyat.

Sure, the BN still held together their traditional parliamentary majority to form the next Federal Government on March 9, but the aftershocks were unnerving: the trauma of losing the Penang, Perak, Kedah and Selangor governments (Kelantan was a goner to begin with), thus thrusting the political careers of leading stalwarts into the backwaters of the political wilderness and triggering one sordid hullabaloo after another in those states.

As if the March 8 gains were inadequate, the audacious Sept 16, 2008 parliamentary power grab was staged, wangled by PKR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and cheered on by his alliance, on the hoary ruse that 30 Sabah BN MPs were ready to bleed the BN into losing its simple majority.

The Sept 16 coup was a non-starter but if it did, Anwar was outplayed by the Sabah MPs, who leveraged their king-making status to win valuable political concessions from the Federal Government.

March 8 also forced a significant consequence: aware that unless major reforms are made, March 8 was bound to repeat itself in the 2013 general election, the Umno leadership clamoured for a leadership change and got it with the ascension of Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who immediately got underway a battery of policy upgrades and modernisation.

His intentions and his programmes must have been too good: the opposition alliance, alarmed at how swiftly the voters were swinging back to BN under Najib’s gambits, set in motion diversions, throwing nails and roadblocks on the road to derail Najib’s advancement.

The ploys, tough as they were, must have failed because these days, you hear less and less of the post-March 8 hyperbole being parroted despite the desperation to prop up the glory moments of that titillating day three years ago. That’s because the hyperbole was stewed from a skewed premise.

True, it was a political tsunami harkened by many voters deserting the ruling coalition. But, not because they loved the concept of the PKR-Pas-DAP troika. It was because they were sorely aggrieved with the BN administration then, baulking at the inescapability of voting for any of the three opposition parties but they were unwilling to allow the leadership to continue with their ways.

True, it was the people’s power that handed Penang, Perak, Kedah, Selangor and good old Kelantan to the opposition alliance, but the people’s power did not exactly originate from enlightened and savvy voters, but resentful ones defecting in massive droves from the Umno-Malay bulwark.

True, voters — government and opposition alike — desired a new political history, one that ruled on good governance and smart and dynamic thinking, but the ideologues voted in, particularly in the five opposition-controlled states, turned out to be troublesome, problematic, petty and, in some parts, silly and nonsensical.

The hyperboles were the charades in which the troika engineered their electoral coups but best of luck in trying to get them to acknowledge that they really owed their new-found seats of power to the Umno-Malay power base disillusioned with the foibles of the past administration.

But in less than three years, the hyperboles have degenerated into ancient history. A new narrative has taken over the hyperboles succoured by:

– a new prime minister, struggling at first to galvanise a bold new vision of inclusiveness but now propelled by an unstoppable, focused momentum and wide endorsements of his refreshing plans to whittle down the entitlement crowd, reinvent the socio-economic roadmap to create better wealth and prosperity, and fashion global alliances to create new markets and neutralise religious extremism;

– an opposition in tatters, splintered by the defection of scores of the party faithful who despise the twisted singularity of one man and the inevitable comprehension that the bedfellowing was actually an unholy alliance unable to deal with selfish party agendas rearing their ugly heads; and,

– the BN’s convincing victories in a slew of by-elections, the latest in Merlimau and Kerdau, to reinforce the political truism that the Umno-Malay voters who deserted their party to grudgingly vote for the troika have now truly returned. These returnee voters are key to Najib’s 2013 strategy to regain what had been lost, from restoring sensible governance to reuniting the scattered Malaysian plurality.

The rationales above have hit a sweet spot, positioning the BN to take a stab at the opposition’s soft underbelly, one that might help the BN bury the ghost of March 8 that has pervasively shaped the realpolitik of the last three years.

You could say now that Najib is on a roll but not without its teething problems. He has scored high in the opinion polls and by-elections, the positives gearing towards his open management style and readiness to roll out key programmes that favour the big picture and long-term, rather than defer to individual, parochial or even racial demands.

As much as he has scored crucial victories in the series of by-elections, made big ticket decisions like agreeing to set up the Royal Commission of Inquiry probing the death of Teoh Beng Hock and brought back confidence and support to the BN, the political conundrums in the five opposition-held states (four after BN wrested back Perak following defections) are still being played out on the ground with no certainty on the direction or outcome.

But for now, Najib can perform the first of last rites to bury the ghost of March 8, make sure that there won’t be a recurrence of the events leading up to that extraordinary date and see to it that his barrage of transformative programmes grow athletic legs to run the distance.