Is Pakatan Harapan a one-term wonder?

Dennis Ignatius, Free Malaysia Today

Instead of focusing on the many serious challenges that confront our nation, the country’s Malay leadership is once again involved in another internecine power struggle. The controversial sex video has laid bare the egos and ambitions of rival Malay politicians within Pakatan Harapan (PH). The mother of all political battles is looming, a fight to the finish that could end up bringing the whole PH house down on itself and derail what’s left of Malaysia Baru.

While tensions between Anwar Ibrahim and Azmin Ali are presently grabbing all the attention, the real battle is still the one between Anwar and Dr Mahathir Mohamad; Azmin is simply a side show.

The rivalry between Mahathir and Anwar is, of course, as old as it is bitter. Anwar was willing to allow Mahathir to take the lead in PH only on the understanding that Mahathir would pass the mantle of leadership to him after a decent interval. Mahathir’s actions since returning to office, however, have increasingly given the Anwar camp good reason to worry that Mahathir is, in fact, manoeuvring to block Anwar’s rise to power.

First, he ignored the parliamentary majority of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) when it came to appointing his Cabinet. Though his party (PPBM or Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia) was among the smallest parties in the coalition, Mahathir appointed almost every single PPBM member of parliament (MP) to ministerial positions at the expense of his other coalition partners. While it was certainly within his right to do so, Anwar felt betrayed.

More significantly, he shrewdly brought into the Cabinet Azmin (who had already been appointed menteri besar of Selangor as part of Anwar’s plan to keep him out of federal politics) and several PKR MPs who were known to disagree with Anwar. The economic affairs portfolio, specially created for Azmin, also came with tremendous patronage power, something that was bound to further annoy the Anwar camp.

With Mahathir being hailed as a hero after the elections, Anwar was, of course, wary of confronting him. The bad blood and mistrust that the Cabinet appointments created, however, festered like gangrene, exacerbating tensions within PKR to the point where the party is now on the verge of a split.

Rumours are circulating that Azmin and his team are planning to join Gerakan. Though anything is possible these days, it’s hard to see an ambitious politician like Azmin joining a dead-end party like Gerakan. PPBM would be a better fit for him though that might push PH itself to breaking point. Don’t be surprised, however, if Azmin decides to stay and make life hell for Anwar from within PKR.

Whichever way you look at it, the Anwar-Azmin fight is going to seriously hobble PKR and Anwar with it. Those who are opposed to Anwar would, no doubt, be pleased.

Mahathir has also gone out of his way to grow his own party by doing what Anwar (as head of a multiracial political party) cannot directly do – appeal to the Ketuanan Melayu instincts of Umno and PAS MPs and other power brokers.

His recent invitation to all Malay MPs to join PPBM to make the Malays strong again is a case in point. In the context of our zero-sum racial politics, when a Malay politician complains that the Malays are “weak”, he is hinting that the non-Malays have become too strong. This is exactly what Umno and PAS have been saying, pointing to important Cabinet posts – finance, transport, communications, trade, primary industries, etc – that are now held by non-Malays.

PPBM vice-president Mukhriz Mahathir provided further insight into his father’s thinking when he opined that there was “a need to increase the number of Malay-Muslims in parliament”. Again, the implications are clear. Though Mukhriz was careful to make the usual noise about respecting non-Malays rights, there was no mistaking his racial calculus.

Mahathir, as head of a genuinely multiracial coalition, and the man who once touted the idea of “Bangsa Malaysia”, could have used his bully pulpit to call on all MPs to join with PH to build a better Malaysia – one that is free of corruption, more democratic, more united, more prosperous, more at peace with itself, a nation where no one would be left behind. Instead, he chose to keep the nation locked in a futile and ultimately self-defeating racial struggle in order to sideline a bitter political foe.

The power struggle between Mahathir and Anwar, now reaching a critical stage, will have enormous consequences for the nation going forward. It’s not just about who will become the 8th prime minister but, ultimately, whether PH itself will survive the next elections.

For one thing, PPBM itself has an uncertain future. Despite defections from Umno, it remains much smaller than the coalition’s big two – PKR and DAP. It lost most of the parliamentary and state seats it contested in the last elections and is still no match for Umno or PAS, weak as they are. Mahathir, and Mahathir alone, holds PPBM together and gives it life. Unless he can grow the party quickly and bring in more talented leaders – an uphill task under any circumstances – it is unlikely to survive after he leaves office.

There is also little doubt that the moment Anwar takes over (still a big if), he’ll cull most of the PPBM leadership team from the Cabinet as well as state-level positions (where they are over-represented anyway) to make room for his own team. That would reduce PPBM’s influence even further. If Mahathir wants to ensure the survival of his party, he will certainly need to remain in office a lot longer.

Unsurprisingly, many are beginning to wonder – given the disarray within its ranks and its dismal performance thus far – if PH can survive the next elections. As it is, Anwar, for all the injustice he has suffered, remains a deeply divisive figure, loved and loathed in equal measure. Many are simply not convinced that he has what it takes to lead PH to victory in the next elections leave alone make a good prime minister.

As well, with 8 million more new voters (most of them Malay and probably pro-Umno or PAS) and a grossly distorted electoral system (as a result of the previous government’s gerrymandering and malapportionment), the odds do not look good for PH.

PH can take some comfort, at least for now, that Umno-PAS still haven’t regained their footing after the drubbing they received in the last elections. Nevertheless, with their skilful exploitation of race and religion, Umno-PAS continue to have wide appeal to a broad swath of Malay-Muslims. If they were able to rid themselves of tainted holdovers from the past like Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Abdul Hadi Awang, they could well find themselves back in Putrajaya sooner than later.

They say a year is a long time in politics. How quickly exuberance and hope have given way to disunity and disarray. We’ve changed the government but not the political culture. And, thanks to ego and ambition, we are losing a historic opportunity to realise the dream of Malaysia Baru.

Mahathir may not like Anwar to succeed him but who else is there? Azmin, Mukhriz, Muhyiddin Yassin? What a pretty mess we are in – problems aplenty and only a few uninspiring and insipid men at hand.