Pakatan Harapan’s watershed

In yet another ironic moment in Malaysia’s political history, what was supposed to be a legitimacy crisis for the government has turned out to be a legitimacy crisis for the opposition. Pakatan Harapan is at a watershed, a turning point after the debacle of the Anwar Ibrahim-led sit down for a non-recorded vote on the second reading of Budget 2021 last Thursday. Thirteen men stood up to oppose the Budget. Only thirteen.

The frustrations over this event are still evident on multiple levels; among elites, votes on allocations for individual ministries to date have been abstained by its ally Warisan and other Sabah representatives in a show of deep frustration. There are also growing calls for an “Anwarshed” of the leadership of Harapan.

Most important of all, the opposition is facing a serious credibility problem among voters – after weeks of building up the debate and momentum on the Budget, not only did Anwar fail to deliver the “numbers” again but the opposition showed a lack of follow-through on the principles and responsibility as the opposition in Parliament in giving the Muhyiddin Yassin government a walkover.

The litany of varied excuses and continued failure to cooperate among themselves have only worsened the situation – as voters are asking whether the parties they expected to work together and represent pressures for reform have abdicated the effort and, even among some, effectively abandoned them. The problems Harapan faced while in government, with real declines in support and delegitimation, are arguably worse now as many of the supporters who returned to the Harapan fold and those that stayed feel doubly betrayed.

Anwar’s weak leadership

The problems in Harapan have been evident for some time, most glaringly illustrated in the February loss of government earlier this year. The tendency has been to focus the analysis around the personalities as this is an easier approach to understand and the personalities have been so prominent in the alliance’s problems. The argument runs that the loss of government in February was Mahathir’s fault. More recently, the current Budget watershed is Anwar’s fault.

No question, Anwar’s leadership has come under a negative spotlight in recent months. Three issues have raised concerns:

1. Cooperation with leaders in Umno who have been convicted of crimes or are facing serious charges;

2. A myopic focus on winning power, with repeated non-realised claims of “having the numbers”;

3. A willingness to abdicate his role as opposition leader with last-minute poorly implemented and even more poorly communicated U-turns in responding to the Budget 2021.

Questions are being asked whether a man who cannot lead the opposition to a vote should be the prime minister. The impression is that his actions as opposition leader have been about Anwar rather than the reform agenda. Harder questions are being asked whether Anwar can mobilise the electorate if an election is called in the coming months. Confidence in Anwar’s leadership has eroded, with discomfort transforming into disappointment and distress.

No matter how this evolves, Anwar, like Mahathir, is unlikely to go without a fight with Anwar’s apparent focus now on trying to win redemption in the coming budget votes, a redemption that is being denied to him so far. Even if he manages to win the budget vote – not likely in current circumstances – the concerns about his leadership will persist.

Inherited, widening divisions

While triggering the watershed, Harapan’s problems go beyond Anwar. There is a trust deficit that extends among the parties to each other. DAP is not trusted by some, others question PKR and yet others look askew at Amanah. It non-Harapan ally Warisan is now being treated with suspicion for its abstentions on the ministry-by-ministry bloc votes – not the established arena to assess the Budget in the entirety. The quick resort to suspicion and blame speaks to troubled relationships.

An internal trust deficit has long been part of Harapan Plus, with the personas of Mahathir and Anwar at different polls and evoking different loyalties. As long as one of the two poles is there, Harapan cannot move forward as a working coalition.

One feature that makes last Thursday’s vote a watershed is that it has deepened the divisions within Harapan – among and within individual parties. In recent months, parties were internally divided over personal loyalties and the strategy ahead – with some supporting winning power through elite cooperation and others prioritising the need to build credibility by assuming the role of a strong opposition.

In one sweep, Thursday’s debacle seriously struck a blow to both strategies. It has also stoked tensions within parties, forcing the parties inward to deal with internal revolts.

It will be difficult to move forward without a major recalibration. If this does not happen, experience shows these divisions will fester, as the previous ones did.

Legitimacy crisis

The norm among Harapan is to find others to blame, rather than look inside at the reasons that brought about the debacle. Umno – the target of blame for failing to deliver support – is not the problem, as that party has enough and caused enough of their own problems. The underlying core issues in this crisis are within Harapan itself.

For months, the alliance partners have adopted the approach that the means justify the ends, but at the same time are no longer clear on what the ends are. The focus has been too centred on winning power, as Harapan has portrayed itself as the embodiment and means to carry out reform. Thursday showed the primacy of a fight for power rather than for principles. One cannot reform when refusing to stand up.

Equally substantively, there has been inadequate attention to what reforms will be carried out or prioritised. The demands for change in the Budget were reactive rather than focused on laying out clear reform-oriented goals. On electoral reform, policy priorities or institutional reform, Harapan has not provided adequately focused direction.

Individuals have offered ideas, but the coalition has numbingly focused its energies on “numbers’” yielding nothing. It is not clear what Harapan stands for. One cannot reform, or even move forward, without a clear programme.

Harapan’s loss of confidence and identity crisis illustrates its own problem with legitimacy. While this has occurred with Anwar at the leadership helm, responsibility for these choices should be shared. Representatives from all parties have contributed to getting to the watershed.

Harapan’s credibility has been severely damaged. If elections are held soon, all of its component parties perhaps except Warisan which is making its displeasure stand clear, will potentially face serious punishment from voters.

Harapan has faced difficult periods before and found a way to recalibrate and move forward. The frustrations both inside Harapan and in the public are real as the desire for reform remains. The public will not wait long for Harapan this time. Many believe Harapan has squandered the chances they have been given.

The drive to move forward, to move away from the past, and arguably leaders from the past, has been gaining momentum. This is the watershed that Harapan should be most wary of, the turning point away from the coalition toward different alternatives.

Taken from