Momentum On the Side of Pakatan Rakyat
September 16 has come and gone, with no change of government yet. The temptation to be disappointed in Anwar if you're a Pakatan Rakyat fan, or to denounce Anwar, if you cheer Barisan Nasional, is undoubtedly there. But once you put Anwar's promise of September 16 out of the picture, you can really appreciate the fact that the momentum and trends are on the side of Pakatan, not Barisan, and Anwar Ibrahim, not Abdullah.
Why set aside the September 16 prediction? Because we have let ourselves get carried away with the hype. Many were expecting something huge on the 16th, and when it did not materialise, they were disappointed — or alternately buoyed, depending on their political views. But from an objective standpoint, Pakatan stands on the cusp of taking power, and Barisan is almost certainly just biding its time left in power.
The elections of 2004 and 2008 were clear mandates for reform. Nobody disputes this. This is about the only real, concrete and indisputable truth left in Malaysian politics. In 2004, voters gave Abdullah Badawi a resounding mandate to clean up the government and civil service and restore our institutions. In 2008, after Abdullah's abysmal failure, they swung their support to the Anwar-led Pakatan, which promised not only the same things as Abdullah had, but even more. Even now, Abdullah's supporters support him because they believe he is the best way to reform the country; his opponents support his challengers because they believe Abdullah is incapable of reform. The key issue is inescapably cleaning things up and rehabilitating our ruined institutions.
But on this score, Abdullah and his Barisan government have only gone from failure to failure after a very brief attempt at reform post-March 8. Immediately after the election, Abdullah made a raft of announcements promising key changes to the structure of the judiciary, the Constitution, the Anti-Corruption Agency — the list goes on and on. He appointed key reform-minded men to the Cabinet, especially people like Zaid Ibrahim and Shahrir Abdul Samad. But after this brief respite from corruption and decadence, Abdullah has increasingly made it clear that reform comes second to the political priorities of his person and his party.
The stark reality was only hinted at when the numerous reforms Zaid and Abdullah proposed were shot down privately by the Cabinet, but the final blows have only come, ironically, in the days leading up to September 16. When Abdullah censored a political website for the first time in Malaysian history, when Abdullah allowed racist remarks by leaders of his own party to go practically unpunished in spite of immense public outcry, when his government made mass arrests of writers and elected representatives under draconian laws for the first time in his term as premier, it became clear that the thin veneer of reform has completely been peeled back. Zaid's resignation was the final nail in the coffin for these rehashed reforms. Even though Abdullah clearly means well, he is not delivering the reforms Malaysians want; he is, if anything, returning us to the days of Mahathir Mohamad, where people were actively terrorised by their own government and the rule of law subservient to the Prime Minister's convenience.
Yet at the same time, Barisan is more divided than ever: while UMNO power struggles were nothing new during Mahathir's tenure, other component parties actively questioning the government's and UMNO's decisions would never be allowed by a Mahathir administration. This is not a sign of opening up, however, but a clear indicator that most Barisan component parties, as well as UMNO leaders from East Malaysia, recognise that the people of Malaysia are fed up with Abdullah's inability to deliver the change he promised, and his government's complete failure to address the needs of the economy, society and the bedrock institutions of our country. The SAPP's decision to quit Barisan, announced earlier this week, is in all probability the first of many such to come; the position of most Barisan component parties is simply untenable as long as UMNO remains recalcitrant.
Nevertheless, it is harder to say what Pakatan's position actually is. The nature of the game they have been playing is such that you cannot tell how strong they are till events come to a crescendo and force them to show their hand. Intuitively, it seems that Pakatan does not have the MPs they need to form a new government.
However, I think it is equally likely that they are doing two things, the first being holding out for broader support from MPs. Forming a government with a shaky majority will hardly cultivate the stability Pakatan needs to carry out its planned reforms, even more so if this majority is built on the basis of non-Malay support. I am almost certain that Pakatan can count on the backing of many non-Malay MPs, but it must secure the support of Malay representatives to rightly say it is a government for all.
The second conundrum is ensuring a stable transition period; although it is a convenient excuse that they must obtain the Prime Minister's promise of stability before going ahead, it is also a fact that Pakatan needs in some sense the blessing of the Prime Minister to take power. After all, Abdullah could easily detain all the Pakatan MPs, and any MPs who cross over as well, as threats to national security. He could erect roadblocks around Parliament and prevent a no-confidence vote against his government. He could even declare martial law, if he really wanted to, since we are still in a state of emergency (the emergency of May 13 has never been revoked). Pakatan at the least needs the Police and armed forces to agree to its forming the new government before it can proceed, and that is what a Pakatan legislator told me they were working on when I met him about three weeks ago.
People are now blaming Anwar and Pakatan for unnecessary politicking and destabilising the current government, when he does not appear to have the MPs he needs; the fact is, however, if he could never get the MPs he needs, he would not be destabilising the government in the first place. That the government would send 50 backbenchers away on a ridiculous "learning trip" to Taiwan just to preclude any announcement on September 16 is but one sign of growing desperation on Barisan's part. If they have no reason to fear Anwar and Pakatan, why do they fear Anwar and Pakatan?
It is insane for Anwar to continue to declare that he has the numbers if he has no reason to think so. At any point he could back down and backpedal — he might lose some credibility, but a week in politics is a long time, and as long as he did not run away with his tail between his legs, as long as he promised an eventual change, people would forgive him after a while. If anything, they might be more excited if Anwar promised to devote his time to moving the five Pakatan-governed states ahead, and forming a shadow cabinet at the federal level. Anwar and Pakatan have so much more to lose if the year ends with them still making clearly false promises, while Barisan closes ranks and refutes their claims. I do not think Anwar would simply and thoughtlessly blare the September 16 promise from the rooftops unless he had a reason to believe that he would have the opportunity he needs to seize power some time this month, or not long after; that Barisan is running scared simply confirms this.
Momentum is on the side of Pakatan: the Abdullah-led Barisan government is incapable of delivering the reforms and changes the Malaysian people want, and everyone knows it. And it is abundantly clear that any of Abdullah's successors from within UMNO will be unable or unwilling to make good on these reforms either, if the response to the raft of reforms Abdullah initially floated is anything to go by. As things stand Malaysia is in a ridiculous position: only in Malaysia can Ministers (Maximus Ongkili), Leaders of the Opposition (Lim Kit Siang, Anwar Ibrahim) and elected representatives say they have been arrested as terrorists threatening national security under the Internal Security Act. Investors and the people at large are losing confidence, not because of Anwar, but because Abdullah is only abusing our corroded institutions even further to maintain his grip on power.
It is ridiculous to blame Anwar and Pakatan alone for causing all this confounded politicking and this instability; they are a cause of it, but far from the single cause. The fact is, Barisan is running scared, not just from Pakatan, but from the grassroots support Pakatan has: it has so far only detained one Pakatan politician, but several journalists and bloggers. The government terrorising its own people is hardly confidence-inspiring. The ruling party's clear rejection of institutional reforms and just treatment for all peoples of Malaysia are far greater blows to public confidence and stability than the supposedly empty threats of a politician. The resignation of the only Minister committed to fixing the country's legal system, the foundation for all commercial and political activity, is always going to be more threatening to confidence and faith in the government than the allegedly groundless claims of an opposition leader. The fact is, Barisan is entirely to blame for the position it is in: Barisan is in all likelihood days or weeks away from losing power, and all because it has irresponsibly abused the power we, the Malaysian people, have vested in it.
If I ever had any real doubts that Pakatan should form the next government soon, Barisan has resoundingly erased them with its actions over the past few months. Public sentiment is overwhelmingly against Barisan, and they know it. We all know it; the elections told us what the people want, and we all know that Barisan is incapable of giving us what we need. For the sake of our country, I look forward to a new government under Pakatan. A Pakatan government may not guarantee a bright future for our country, but remaining under Barisan rule can only guarantee a future of travail, terror and tyranny.
First published in The Malaysian Insider.