Pakatan Rakyat: Not Everything is As it Seems
With September 16 already nearly three weeks in the past, the Anwar Ibrahim-led Pakatan Rakyat is still dithering on whether it will be taking power any time soon. Many observers are pointing out, as has been done before, that Pakatan increasingly seems fragile, held together only by Anwar and the promise of power. This is not quite true, for we should not be comparing Pakatan to an ideal political coalition, but the coalition it is challenging — Barisan Nasional. And the fact is, Pakatan is far more united and far more principled than Barisan.
It's easy to see why you might think Pakatan is fracturing and fragmenting. PAS and the DAP can barely sit at the same table. The DAP explicitly takes a more classical liberal approach to governance, promoting market-based solutions to poverty where possible, while PAS espouses a welfare state. The DAP demands greater personal freedom and a secular government, while PAS believes social cohesion and moral and religious concerns should take priority over individual liberties. These two parties can hardly sensibly sit down together and speak with one voice, can they?
It is also clear that the Anwar-led PKR is only able to glue these parties together because of its refusal to come down too hard on either side. Anwar in his public speeches has come out in support of both free markets and greater government intervention in the economy; the party economic manifesto reflects both positions. Likewise, Anwar's and PKR's statements on religious issues and civil rights have been carefully worded to avoid offending either side while simply calling for greater dialogue between the two sides. How can Pakatan remain coherent without Anwar's incredible charisma and force of personality?
While there is no denying that Anwar is one of the strongest factors holding Pakatan together, I think we often underestimate the actual cohesion within Pakatan. The strongest and most important tie, I think, is a commitment to dialogue. Without willingness to sit down and hash out difficult issues, I don't see how a country can get anywhere.
Even if PAS and the DAP do not see eye to eye, it is important that they try to talk about it rather than try to silence the other. Say what you will about PAS, but it was the PAS Unit Amal which prevented the crowd of fundamentalist Muslim protesters from storming the Bar Council building at that infamous protest; they upheld the freedom of expression, the freedoms of both the protesters and the forum participants. The DAP has repeatedly shown a willingness to hear other views, even if some of its leaders are more stubborn than others. A coalition can work in spite of political differences; ask coalition governments in countries like New Zealand, Italy and Germany — and even big tent parties like the Democrats and Republicans in the United States, who have more than their fair share of internal dissenting subgroups.
Just as importantly, all Pakatan component parties agree that it is imperative to forge stronger bonds of nationality between us all, and endorse the repeal of discriminatory policies as a major step towards this goal. You must be insane if you think it is easy to get a consensus on something as complicated as the issue of race and nationality. That all Pakatan parties endorse this principle is an amazing testament to their success in building a foundation for their coalition; this is more than a marriage of convenience.
The final issue I think all Pakatan parties can agree on is the important need to stamp out corruption, rehabilitate the justice system, and restore the rule of law. These might seem to be truisms which any politician will support, but surprisingly there are many politicians from the ruling party who see justice and fairness as things which stand in the way of their profits and interests. Pakatan has thus found a rough agreement on legal and economic issues, a consensus on ethnic and identity politics, and declared itself willing to talk openly about where to go on other issues.
Compared to where Barisan stands, this is really honestly amazing; Barisan could not agree on politics to save its life, quite literally. It has party leaders tearing up pictures of other party leaders. Virtually every move one party's leaders make is criticised by the leaders of the other parties. They have attempted their own drive at fixing the country's institutions but that has completely stalled, with the Minister leading the charge quitting halfway through. If we are completely objective, it is Barisan that is the marriage of convenience, not Pakatan.
And this is again, quite literally true: recall that this is how the Alliance was seen when it was first formed. UMNO and MCA could not agree on anything then, and they still cannot agree on anything now. The difference is, back then they agreed to frankly discuss and negotiate important issues in private to work differences out. That is what made the Alliance viable; it is what has become the undoing of Barisan.
Today Barisan's failure is two-fold. First, this model of closed-door negotiations, with high-level ethnic community leaders feeding decisions down the hierarchy, cannot satisfy a mature democracy's need to discuss issues openly without having leaders talk down to the citizens. Second, today Barisan does not even adhere to this model of negotiating compromises in private; in reality, one party tells everyone else what they are supposed to do. Without an agreement to talk — with instead just an agreement to pretend to talk — is it any wonder that Barisan component parties cannot get along, cannot work together, cannot govern?
Pakatan may be a marriage of convenience, but such are all coalitions. The stark reality is, they are a far more solid coalition than Barisan was at its formation, because they are willing to support the right of all Malaysians to participate in a dialogue on important issues, and voice their own views; because they have an agreement on the need to fight corruption and restore the country's institutions, and are doing so slowly in the states they govern; and because they already have a plan for uniting the nation which the nation itself endorses. As loose as it may be, Pakatan is the stronger coalition, because without even a basic agreement on the right of everyone to have a say, Barisan will implode — as it already is in the process of doing.
First published in The Malaysian Insider.