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Is Sarawak PKR up to par to lead?

February 9, 2011

With the state polls around the corner, the opposition appears to be too preoccupied with internal problems.


By Tomas Madang Anak Ijau

Sarawak is facing a state election which many feel will be held by May this year. Is the opposition really ready? More precisely, is PKR really in the position to assume leadership of the opposition?

By most accounts, it is going to be a mother of all elections. For one thing, there is little doubt that the ruling coalition is facing its toughest test as the present Chief Minister Taib Mahmud is probably at the tail end of his long and controversial political life. For another, there is the question of a successor administration: who, or which group will wear the mantle of state leadership after the current one is eased out?

It is an open secret that there are a few possible centres of power on both sides of the political divide that are beginning to emerge and they are all working to carve out their own political lebensraum in post-election Sarawak. Speculations about the state BN involve, among others, on who will take the plum post of chief minister? Will it go, no matter how briefly, to a long servile, subservient and suffering Dayak leader? Or will a more upstanding and capable one be brought back from KL to Sarawak to take over the reins? But that is not our concern today. Our focus here is the state opposition, particularly PKR and its state of affairs.

For a while now the party presumes that it is the lead organisation in the opposition. There is ample evidence for this presumption. For instance, in the allocation of seats, PKR makes the argument that it should take the lion’s share of seats to be contested in Sarawak.

Does Sarawak PKR deserve this role of lead organisation which it feels entitles it to take a big chunk of seats available for contest in the coming election? Let us look at the facts.

First, let us look at the structural design of the party as a whole. PKR is a national party which is led by the president and the central leadership council in Kuala Lumpur. There are a lot of advantages to being a national party, just as there are a number of disadvantages as well. Of the latter, let’s look at the request for some form of autonomy, for instance.

Some in Sarawak PKR have been clamouring for some form of local autonomy so that local leaders could decide on matters at their own level. Admittedly, there have been promises of some form of local decision-making but that is as far as it has gone. Promises were believed to have been made, but not delivered. In the ill-fated adventure of the Batang Ai by-election, for instance, the eventual selection of the candidate was believed to have been against local and formal recommendations. In other words, the centre (Kuala Lumpur) has tended to be deaf and blind to local conditions and opinions.

Second, there is the matter of the state PKR leadership. In the last five years, there have been at least five state leaders. First, there was Hafsah Harun, an elder statesperson, then there was Dominic Ng who was succeeded by Anwar Ibrahim, Mustaffa Kamal Ayub and finally by Baru Bian himself. Five state heads in five years do not bode well for organisational stability, no matter how good the heads are. Indeed, it makes Sarawak PKR very much like the Italy of the post-war years, where governments rise and fall with unnerving frequency.

Why were there such frequent changes in Sarawak state chief by the central leadership under Anwar? One explanation is that Sarawak PKR is wrecked by factionalism. There are simply too many groups that seemed to be able to reach the top of the decision-making structure in Kuala Lumpur. Changes were made seemingly without too much consideration for stability and long-term impact. Thus very often people who should have stayed much longer to effect more changes for the party in Sarawak found their services terminated because the central leadership was listening more to their rivals’ arguments.

Third, the present Sarawak PKR is divided into a number of informal spheres of influence. As a multiracial party, this is not supposed to happen. But the reality is that the Bidayuhs have one informal paramount leader; the Orangs Ulu another, the Ibans yet another. Likewise, the Malay-Melanau also have one paramount leader, although his hold on this position appears to remain tenuous.

The bulk of PKR apparent strength, such as it has been, is found in the Dayak areas (Iban, Orang Ulu, and Bidayuh). As for the Malay-Melanau areas, the party has not been making much inroads, except for constituencies in the Betong division. Indeed, it is doubtful whether the party could find really suitable candidates for most of the coastal constituencies (Malay and Melanau). How is this possible? What are the missing ingredients here? Why focus on inland constituencies and be basically non-existent in coastal ones? What is at play here? The central leadership of PKR in Kuala Lumpur has a lot to answer for this.

Fourth, a number of observers are convinced that PKR is not serious about the state party politics. The argument goes something like this: so long as a particular seat goes to the opposition, it matters little which party it belongs to because it is in Pakatan Rakyat and PKR is the head organisation in Pakatan. This being the case although the centre would prefer that people identify themselves with PKR, it is not absolutely necessary that this should happen.

Fifth, there is the matter of current developments in the party. To many observers, that Sarawak PKR is in turmoil is the product of constant manoeuvres by different and differing factions. There was, it was said, a very recent move to remove the current head, Baru Bian which led to the man losing his post in the central level. Then there is another unresolved problem: who is supposed to run in which constituency? Different lists are said to be proffered to the central leadership for consideration. There are other goings-on as well, but these are perhaps best left unstated.

Sixth, there is the curious role of the party’s apparent “courtiers” who have evidently attached themselves to the party’s state leadership. They have been making outrageous statements in which they tried to ridicule fellow opposition parties and their leaders. These publicists and “courtiers” ought to exhibit statesmanship and bold plans for collective actions. Instead, they have tried to seek sympathy by their outbursts. Are they trying to push political parties out of Pakatan in Sarawak?

For a party which is of very recent vintage, the impact of these internal struggles has been debilitating for Sarawak PKR, to say the least. Many potential supporters feel that this is a party that “cannot shoot straight”. Sarawak PKR would want to lead the coalition against the state government in the coming election but clearly it is in no position to do so. Structurally, it is organised in such a way that the top leadership under Anwar has continued to tinker with the state party machinery with unsettling frequency.

Furthermore, powerful figures in Sarawak PKR seemed unable to stop undermining one another. The latest spate of changes in the leadership musical chair happened only a few weeks ago. Besides, despite its multiracial stance and past efforts, the party is largely limited to Dayak support. Then there is this problem of terminal factionalism: it has stymied the party’s efforts in strengthening itself and election preparations, one or two exceptions notwithstanding.

Sarawak PKR appears to be wallowing in a morass of its own making. And for this it has to thank its many local factions and their allegedly multiple candidates’ lists and the interventionism of its central leadership in Kuala Lumpur.

Is PKR therefore ready for the coming election? Time will tell. For the moment, Sarawak PKR certainly appears to be preoccupied with what observers have euphemistically refer to as “internal matters”.

Tomas Madang Anak Ijau is a PKR member, Kota Samarahan.


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