02 January, 2009

How long can Pakatan's united front last?

Pakatan Rakyat in its present form is not a viable alternative to Barisan Nasional, writes ZUBAIDAH ABU BAKAR

OPEN feuds are a never-ending problem in Pakatan Rakyat, a coalition of mismatched opposition parties. Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia and the Democratic Action Party have dissimilar aims and divergent policies.

Islamist Pas and the secular and socialist DAP have tried to work together in past elections, but their differences have always pushed them apart. When the same three players formed "Barisan Alternatif" to contest the 1999 general election as an electoral pact, they were paralysed by internal bickering, particularly between Pas and DAP over the former's insistence an Islamic state. DAP left that alliance in 2001.

Pakatan Rakyat was hastily assembled after the three parties' impressive electoral performance in the last general election, to impress upon the country that there was finally a united opposition front.

The components performed better than their wildest dreams, collectively winning 82 of the 222 parliamentary seats, denying Barisan Nasional a two-thirds majority and taking control of the state assemblies of Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor.

Yet, Pakatan's survival remains threatened by internal schisms. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim cannot afford to let these fester; not when a new path to power has been conveniently opened for him to legitimately march to Putrajaya.

The Kuala Terengganu parliamentary by-election, necessitated by the sudden death of Deputy Education Minister Datuk Razali Ibrahim on Nov 28, has come as a tonic to Anwar's tattered image after his failure to topple the government through crossovers by Sept 16. Not one parliamentarian from any major BN component party defected to Pakatan Rakyat.

The by-election in Terengganu, a state Pas has controlled, will reveal whether Malaysians still believe that Pakatan can do a better job than the time-tested BN in ruling the country.

The Jan 17 by-election is a must-win battle for Pakatan, and the best chance for the opposition coalition to collect another seat in Parliament through the democratic process.

A win would be a morale-booster for Pakatan's election machinery for another widely expected by-election, in Pensiangan, Sabah, a seat currently held by Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah president Tan Sri Joseph Kurup, followed by the much-anticipated Sarawak state elections, and thereafter the 13th general election.

Can Pakatan's parties work together in the by-election with several unresolved issues? Anwar, due back from overseas on Tuesday, has so far kept mum.

Political analyst Ong Kian Ming observes that the public spat between Pas and DAP over the hudud issue should not be overblown, but neither should it be taken lightly.

Leaders of both parties are aware of the pressures both are facing, and are having to appease their members who are suspicious of the other party. Both sides hope the hudud issue will be a non-factor in the Kuala Terengganu by-election as well as moving forward.

"It should also not be taken lightly in that it is a sign of larger problems within Pakatan," says Ong.

For one thing, Ong notes, Pakatan does not have a formal mechanism for resolving disagreements, unlike BN has with its supreme council.

Secondly, it points to many important leaders in Pas not wanting to work with DAP, while some in PKR would prefer to work with Umno. "If these problems, especially the latter, are not managed well, Pakatan could be heading for seriously troubled waters," Ong says.

Cracks are obvious within this alliance of convenience, as each party wants to impose its ways on how to govern the states they control.

The much publicised war of words among Pakatan leaders in Selangor has had PKR deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali pleading those involved -- Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim, State Assembly Speaker Teng Chang Kim, Klang member of parliament Charles Santiago and Kapar MP S. Manikavasagam -- to stop airing their differences in the media.

De facto PKR chief Anwar, DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang and Pas president Datuk Abdul Hadi Awang may be accommodating of each other but they seem to have underestimated the independent-mindedness of their leaders in Kedah, Perak and Selangor.

Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Azizan Razak obviously has a mind of his own. So have Pas leaders in Selangor. There are also one or two maverick DAP representatives in Selangor and Perak.

"It's a challenge to Anwar to use his personal powers of persuasion for component parties to focus on the next general election," says Merdeka Centre opinion poll director Ibrahim Sufian.

Professor Sivamurugan Pandian of Universiti Sains Malaysia thinks Anwar cannot continue with his wait-and-see attitude on these quarrels in Pakatan.

Ong says Anwar would usually "step in and try to paper over the cracks" if the squabbles get out of hand, so far, effectively.

"Pakatan is not in danger of breaking up any time soon," he says, "but over the longer term, Anwar should find different strategies to manage these kinds of fights, other than having people rely on him."

Sivamurugan wants Anwar to state his stand, especially on hudud. Pas and DAP are both consistent in their stands, with the former pushing for its implementation and the latter opposing it.

Such conflicts in Pakatan cast doubts on its ability to realise its vision of a united nation, free of communal politics.

Pakatan should count its lucky stars that BN is still in disarray after its March electoral debacle, particularly over the controversies and problems in its main component parties.

Umno is occupied with its party elections scheduled for March; the MCA has remained factionalised since its October party elections; the MIC has a host of internal problems in the run-up to its presidential election in March, and Gerakan and the People's Progressive Party seem still in the dark about how to revive themselves.

If Pakatan's members continue to impose their own thinking in handling issues, the coalition can't be expected to go very far. It may suffer a premature death before the 13th general election.

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