PKR marks its silver jubilee

PKR turns 25. It is holding an event to mark the occasion today.

The party of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has a lot to celebrate. It also has considerable challenges, not least of which is meeting the promises it made to voters for reform and inclusion now as the dominant party in government. This piece looks at PKR’s success and strains as it moves forward.

Emerging out of the events of 1998-1999, in which Anwar Ibrahim was beaten and convicted on trumped-up legal charges in a flawed legal process, the party tied itself to calls for reform to address corruption and cronyism.

While the party originally centred itself around the persona of Anwar and his legal struggles, PKR broadened into a party tied to reform and calls for better and more inclusive governance.

In a quarter of a century, PKR has become the second largest party organisation in Malaysia in terms of membership, reaching officially 1.6 million members.

Vote share is lower compared to some other parties (especially Umno, DAP and, more recently PAS), at 18 percent overall, but its share of seats is critical for government formation nationally and in states, especially Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan.

Many reasons to celebrate

Since its formation, PKR has made transforming contributions to Malaysian politics. PKR’s call for political reform set the defining narrative of national politics from its formation until 2022.

Its leaders (and their families) made difficult sacrifices working for political reform. While arguably other parties have done so as well and earlier, PKR leaders faced some of the most toxic and hard-hitting attacks in large part due to the party’s fundamental traditional challenge to Umno.

PKR both inspired and channelled a growing number of confident progressive Malaysians, particularly Malays who have sought an open, non-conservative alternative, and continues to win over a significant share of political support of the Malay community (the level of which varies by state but is in line with its overall vote share of a minimum of 20 percent).

Since 2008, PKR has won the plurality of votes of non-Malays in seats it contested, except in Borneo.

PKR has been pivotal in expanding and maintaining political coalition alliances, both for Pakatan Rakyat and Pakatan Harapan. In both coalitions, Anwar’s leadership was a bridge among the different political parties. He continues to play a critical bridging role among the different political parties in the unity government.

PKR is also the most prominent multiracial party in Malaysia. Its national leadership has also been multiethnic. While there are other multiracial parties, PKR has bridged ethnic divides in national politics through its own party example.

Until recently (leading the coalition government), PKR has successfully engaged across all communities, reaching out to Borneo as well, making it a truly national party. Traditionally, PKR avoided the muck of racialised and religious politics.

Substantively and symbolically, PKR has also served as a national umbrella beyond race, capturing diversity from the Islamist student movement of the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement to liberal non-governmental activists.

Not least, PKR is also the most democratic party in terms of electing its leadership directly, despite a series of divisive and fractious party elections.

Without these critical contributions by PKR – its push for reform, bridging differences, inclusion and party democracy – Malaysia would not be where it is today, a stronger, more confident polity pushing towards addressing problems instead of just acknowledging them.

Governing pains

Governing at the national level has not been easy for PKR. All too often some of its leaders continue to act as if they are in opposition rather than the government with its grassroots attacking rather than accepting criticism.

The party’s successes were tied to the struggle to get into office and its leadership preoccupation with staying in office since 2022 has contrasted sharply with the party’s professed identity.

PKR can no longer call itself the party of anti-corruption when it supports withdrawing and discounting corruption charges to keep in power, for example. That so many Malaysians point to disappointment about the Anwar government addressing corruption in the latest Ipsos survey is illustrative.

This issue of living up to promises in office has become a major problem for PKR. Without meaningful reforms (which have yet to happen), it is not clear what the party stands for.

In the 2023 PKR convention, attention moved to the implementation of progressive policies, especially poverty reduction.

Yet, when anti-poverty initiatives like the Central Database Hub are being implemented in a way that is not listening to public concerns, pressuring the registration of poor people who fear loss of benefits – this is also not in line with the party’s ideals.

There is a (growing) disconnect between PKR’s past promises and present governance. While it has done well in governing Selangor and Negeri Sembilan at the state level, deliverables nationally are a weakness for PKR. Choosing to impose and increase sales and service tax has had a serious effect on the cost of living, which has undercut support for the party.

PKR’s strength came from the hope it gave the public of implementing positive change, and its campaigning of over two decades. Its weakness lies in handling (growing) public disappointment.

The most serious attack PKR faces in its history is that it is becoming Umno in practices and policy implementation. Perceived patronage and cronyism severely undercut the party’s credibility. Most voters pragmatically can appreciate that compromises do need to be made, but what is being lost is the core of the party’s identity and credibility.

Anwar’s dominance

The party attained its goal of Anwar becoming prime minister. Now it faces the difficult task of differentiating the party from its leader, especially hard given that PKR’s leader has been so intertwined with the party’s political identity and fortunes.

PKR faces the problem of highly personalised parties, to go beyond the personality of one leader. Particularly difficult is finding the space for other leaders to rise, to allow alternative leaders to gain legitimacy on their own.

To date, pressures for leadership change in PKR have been portrayed as challenges to the existing leadership rather than as a necessary process of ongoing change and grooming of younger leaders in an evolving party.

The path post-Anwar leadership is not being set out. It is not clear who will become the leader of PKR after Anwar, as the steps toward transition and grooming another level of leaders are not being clearly taken. Anwar continues to dominate the party.

His leadership in office has also impacted how the party is perceived. Anwar’s myopic focus on winning Malay support has hurt the party’s relationship with non-Malays. The examples are well known from the poor handling of the KK Mart socks issue to a disparaging of the Indian community.

PKR’s non-Malay leaders are also seen to be sidelined, complicated by compromises in working with coalition parties, notably DAP. The effect is that PKR is increasingly no longer seen as the multiracial party it once was and professes to be. This further complicates perceptions of what the party stands for (or doesn’t stand for).

Along with leadership, political identity and credibility, the party faces a challenge in building itself as an institution, increasing membership and loyalty. The lack of programmes for youth and focus on governing rather than the party, weaken engagement among younger voters in particular.

The party leadership does not control the public narrative, and when it does respond, increasingly it is in a defensive (or dismissive) manner.

Youth connectivity (or lack thereof) is critical for the sustainable growth of the party organisation and for maintaining electoral support. This is not the first time a party in office ignored meaningful changes for youth at their own peril.

Bittersweet 25 years

The anniversary offers an opportunity to take stock of PKR’s present and future. Its past successes have made the opportunity to govern possible. Without PKR, arguably there would not be a modern, more democratic Malaysia. Without question, she has become stronger due to the struggles and sacrifices of PKR.

In government, the significant undercutting of PKR’s ideals, deficits in the delivery of promises and unwillingness to move the party outside of the traditional governing practices are having an effect. The personalistic mode of leadership in the last year and a half opens up the party to greater obstacles ahead, not just for PKR but for Malaysia as a whole.

Most worrying is an ongoing erosion of hope as ordinary people are losing faith in leaders and struggling to make ends meet. Expectations are high for PKR, as it was the party that helped raise awareness and demands.

More needs to be done, especially to improve the welfare of citizens and distinguish PKR’s governance from previous tenures.

With the marking of PKR’s silver jubilee, there are good reasons to celebrate. At the same time, however, PKR risks its own future – and that of Malaysia – if it continues to ignore its past ideals and expectations of its supporters to stand by those ideals.


First published on Malaysiakini.