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The Pakatan Harapan dilemma

September 7, 2017

The opposition bloc provides a good democratic environment, but it must not keep the public in the dark on the direction of individual parties or the coalition as a whole.



By Arveent Kathirtchelvan

Much has been said about the instability of Pakatan Harapan (PH) over the past few days. Truly, the infighting, changes in decisions on working with PAS within PKR and different agendas of component parties do not make for pleasant viewing for opposition supporters. However, on that last point, there is a need to review whether voters should be concerned if there are differing views within the coalition.

The need for conformity within a political coalition is overrated. It comes from decades of single-mindedness in politics that called for forced stability. When Malaysia was newly established, it was a country with communities so culturally different that they needed a unifying core to which to tie themselves.

Even before the Federation of Malaya was formed, a coalition of different parties had come together with a single-minded purpose: to fight for independence. Umno, MCA and MIC were representing different ethnic groups, and this was a good idea politically because it served to placate a divided electorate. Nevertheless, all three agreed on that single purpose.

So strong was this need for conformity that less nationalist, more leftist organisations were disparaged and even criminalised. This carried on after independence as the power elite attempted to build unity through an artificial conformity.

Further differences were vilified and Barisan Nasional (BN) grew to become a bloc of many political parties which all agreed with each other on all issues.

It is funny that Gerakan is not making so much as a peep against racial politics and policies when it is supposed to stand for a non-ethnic approach to politics, economics, education and culture. It is that contradiction between personal party philosophy and coalition practice that makes BN a peculiar entity.

This has only become worse over the years with the growth of racial politics and Umno’s influence. Eighty-six of the 129 seats in the Dewan Rakyat are now held by Umno, making its influence in BN massive. It is not stretching the imagination to say that BN policies will tend to follow Umno’s and that any opposing voice within the coalition will be quickly silenced by the party, which holds 67% of the coalition’s seats.

Comparing this to PH, DAP holds 36 seats while PKR holds 28. Amanah (6) and PPBM (1) currently hold very few seats, but they have never taken part in an election before and cannot be judged in the same way.

In PH, there is real political weight when one party disagrees with another. This, instead of being detrimental to the health of the coalition, is in fact very healthy. What we need to understand is that each party has its own circle of influence and agenda.

Not all policies that one party comes up with will be accepted by its non-supporters. Hence, differing positions will force parties to sit down and come up with policies that might not make everyone happy but can at least be acceptable to the most number of people.

In PH, we have a better democratic environment than in BN, which is too Umno-centric for its identity politics to be positive. The whole reason BN decided on ethnic-based parties was so that these different groups would be adequately represented.

But now, it seems, parties which are multiracial are becoming increasingly popular.

On this basis alone – that the opposition coalition is made up of parties that are individually powerful while BN is dominated by a single party – it seems more practical to vote for PH in order to have a more democratic process.

That being said, though, it would be extremely optimistic to say that the coming election will favour PH. There are still serious problems with the opposition coalition that require a lot of work to resolve.

While healthy discourse and debate between component parties, or even individual members, is a sign of a healthy democratic system, it is irresponsible to keep the public in the dark on the direction of a party or the coalition as a whole.

The best way to solidify the seriousness of the coalition in its direction would be to talk about issues and policies from the get-go. This is where PH falls flat.

It seems that along with the need for conformity in politics, we have inherited the same brand of identity politics as the norm for parties on either side of the divide.

This system of focusing the political narrative on the cramped corridors of racial, religious and language considerations strips the rakyat of the incentive to talk about policy matters such as progressive taxation, affordable housing and governmental reforms. Often enough, the opposition seems to be more comfortable harping on the supposed failures of BN than clarifying its own stance on key issues.

We are stuck in a never-ending loop of the government and opposition slinging mud at each other.

It seems like the empty applause obtained from their own loyalists has made these parties believe that chasing more claps and hurrahs through tag lines and buzz words will suffice in place of actual policy making. It won’t. The most it can do is obtain votes cheaply, and there may be disappointments later on.

PH has a potentially sustainable democratic model in its diversity of opinions and the political weight of each party. However, until it breaks away from the decades-old model of identity politics, it cannot boast that it is better than BN.

Arveent Kathirtchelvan is the founder and chief coordinator of #Liberasi, an open platform committed to revising outdated social constructs.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


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