The intractable disconnect between PKR and Bersatu


That there was a disconnect between Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR and Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Bersatu even before they joined forces to dispose of a common enemy in the form of Najib Abdul Razak is obvious – they were just too far apart in terms of ideology and aims.

The two of them, who buried their deep-seated differences to work towards a common cause, carried way too much baggage in terms of animosity and mutual distrust – to put it very mildly – to be very comfortable and trusting of each other any more.

Some history is needed to understand the differences and the events that led to Mahathir being PM again, and the intractable differences that have emerged between PKR and Bersatu.

PKR was formed in the aftermath of the dismissal as deputy prime minister and the arrest of Anwar, ordered by Mahathir in 1998.

PKR pushed the reform agenda hard and worked to free Anwar from two sodomy charges, and for a fair and just place for all Malaysians. It, in effect, became a multi-racial party with a strong Malay base.

It was not until 10 years later, in 2008, that PKR made its mark and became a force to be contended with in alliance with multi-racial, but Chinese-based DAP and religious PAS.

In 2013, PKR and its allies continued to get support and deny BN its two-thirds majority first achieved in 2008, despite Mahathir openly lending support to BN headed by Najib, who Mahathir supported to take over from Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (below) after his elections setback in 2008.

Towards GE14 in 2018, the alliance with PAS collapsed and a PAS breakaway, Amanah, was formed with some ex-PAS MPs, which joined the coalition. However, Amanah was considered too lightweight in the aftermath of two by-elections at Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar.

In three-cornered fights between BN (Umno), PAS and Amanah, Umno prevailed in both seats. Tellingly, their total votes in each constituency exceeded the combined total of the other two. Mahathir actively campaigned against BN in both seats.

Amanah was not getting the requisite Malay votes. DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong has been given, generally, the credit for allying with Mahathir as a means of getting Malay support.

Many in and out of DAP considered Anwar’s wife Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as too “weak” and “naive” to lead the coalition into elections and to become interim prime minister. Then there was that thing about her being a woman – all ridiculous, of course.

However, it was always understood at all times that Mahathir would be an interim PM pending the release of Anwar from prison via a pardon. There are a plethora of reports to say that that period will not be more than two years.

Long and acrimonious discussion preceded this decision and it looked like the alliance with Mahathir was not going to take place a number of times. Mahathir’s Bersatu was given 52 seats to contest in Peninsular Malaysia, one more than PKR’s 51.

At GE14 on May 8, 2018, Najib and BN were defeated. It was like a fairy tale. Mahathir was hailed as the person who enabled this, but the figures told a different tale.

Bersatu had won just 13 out of 52 parliamentary seats it contested, for a dismal win rate of 25 percent. PKR’s win rate in the peninsula was over 80 percent, DAP’s over 90 percent and even Amanah’s was 50 percent. At the end of GE14, PKR had 47 seats, DAP 42 and Amanah 11, against Bersatu’s 13.

Ironically, Liew himself lost his parliamentary seat, but was given a deputy minister’s post via appointment as a senator. Tellingly, no such thing happened to PKR leader Rafizi Ramli, widely regarded among insiders as the person who was most responsible for a Harapan victory and the only one to predict victory for the coalition. Rafizi did not stand for a seat because of defamation charges pending against him.

Whether by design or an accident of fate, Mahathir became PM again, 15 years after his 22-year reign which ended in 2003. If anybody expected that the leopard had changed its spots and was interested in true reform and a new Malaysia which everyone can belong to, they were disappointed, including Anwar, who buried much suffering under the Mahathir regime, including long prison terms, because he felt Mahathir was a changed person.

Acceptance of Mahathir as interim PM was based on two premises – that he will be an interim PM, but no definite timelines and agreements as to cabinet composition, etc, were written down. And second, that he was old and therefore easy to manipulate and would be more of a caretaker PM. Mahathir has been anything but that.

Despite an opportunity for Wan Azizah (above) to become PM, offered by the King then, she kept to the coalition promise for Mahathir to become PM. However, constitutionally, there was no provision for such a thing as an interim PM.

Once Mahathir was installed as PM, the leopard reverted to its spots, quite ruthlessly running roughshod over PKR, making divisive moves within PKR and getting the DAP on his side by appointing the party’s ambitious supremo Lim Guan Eng as finance minister without any consultation with PKR.

His supporters cried prime ministerial prerogative and so did the DAP – for a while. The coalition almost had an early death.

Then he drove an unexpected wedge into PKR by proposing Azmin Ali as economic affairs minister, effectively splitting the Finance Ministry into two, cutting Lim’s power at the same time.

Azmin was not even on PKR’s list as he was the menteri besar of Selangor then. Azmin obtained Anwar’s approval to accept the post, although Anwar was in the dark about it, initially.

Then it became possible that he might become the PM when the time came, instead of Anwar. Azmin, previously a staunch Anwar supporter, no longer says that Anwar should succeed Mahathir as PM.

Embroiled in a sex tape scandal recently with a male PKR member, which so far has not been disproved, Azmin has alleged conspiracy within PKR for his predicament.

Mahathir not only gave disproportionate cabinet positions to Bersatu and Amanah after GE14, but brought in the controversial former finance minister Daim Zainuddin (above), who is known to be distrusted by Anwar and who has an antagonistic relationship with him, as a key economic adviser.

Daim headed the Council of Eminent Persons, an extra-cabinet grouping to make recommendations to the PM. That report is now classified secret under the Offical Secrets Act, among legislation PKR promised to rescind/review in its manifesto. Not just that, but many other promised legal reforms are still gathering dust, more than heat, on the backburner.

Although PKR and DAP combined at 90 seats had nearly four-fifths of the 114 parliamentary seats of the official coalition (excluding Warisan) at the end of GE14, Mahathir blatantly made unilateral decisions, as if his party had the majority of seats in Parliament. He unilaterally brought in Umno members to boost his party numbers, and lately, suggested that Malays join Bersatu, incensing his coalition partners, particularly PKR and DAP.

There has been a re-emergence of patronage, and Mahathir’s pet projects, such as a national car, have re-emerged, along with Looking East and others, while projects, initially frozen, have seen new leases of life, oftentimes under the old partners.

Mahathir says negotiated tenders will remain, while Daim openly invited businessmen who want to tender for the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) to come to see him if they were shy, but had the ability – an open invitation to patronage. The amendments to the ECRL contract still remain unrevealed. A slew of other heavy expenditure items is also being approved without proper disclosure and justification.

There is no hurry for the promised legal reform. A person was recently jailed for insulting a sultan under the Sedition Act with no stay of execution pending appeal – a rather harsh sentence. This was despite a Harapan promise to abolish the law and a government undertaking not to use it “except in extreme cases”, a qualification introduced by Mahathir himself.

None of the prime ministerial powers has been rescinded despite that being the main reason for 1MDB, the largest kleptocracy the world has ever known.

Mahathir is of the Malay dominance or ketuanan Melayu mould, who conspired with Najib’s father, Abdul Razak Hussein (above), to get rid of Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, and part of the team which engineered the placing of Malays in key positions within government and special privileges for Malays.

This has been substantially misused in the past to enrich Malays through the award of lopsided contracts, etc, and to put incompetent people and cronies in key places. If it was up to Mahathir, all these would continue unabated, unchanged. The only problem with the previous BN was it was dipping its hands into the till, but anything else goes, it would seem.

For reform to take place and a new Malaysia to emerge, Mahathir, as interim prime minister, has to go first and Anwar needs to take over. No one knows for sure what kind of PM Anwar will make, but that was the promise. It is a promise that Mahathir will break if he can and he seems to be setting the stage for that.

But that was the basis on which the last GE14 was won, with its promise of changing a corrupt, inefficient system which benefited the few at the top at the expense of the vast majority.

At some point, if Mahathir refuses to keep his pledges, especially on succession, the crunch time will come and considerable uncertainty and anxiety for the country will emerge.

If there is to be hope for Harapan, PKR and DAP must stick together and believe in the “Malaysia for all” model without marginalising any community, especially the Malay community.

That’s the difference between Malay supremacist parties such as Bersatu, Umno and PAS on the one hand and PKR on the other, which may be the ultimate in Malaysia by providing a multi-racial party to represent all Malaysians fairly and justly.