Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Selangor crisis brings Pakatan’s inadequacies to the fore

After eight months of protracted quarrelling that widened political divisions between the component parties of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition, the appointment of PKR deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali to the helm of the country’s richest state has now drawn the Selangor menteri besar crisis to a close.

PKR has maintained over the past several weeks that it would only endorse its president, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah, for the MB post. Though the DAP supported Wan Azizah’s nomination, the party also expressed openness to the idea of Azmin replacing embattled MB Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim. Wan Azizah withdrew her candidacy for the position shortly after the Sultan of Selangor announced his decision to choose Azmin for the post.

PKR’s leadership has understood that antagonizing the palace will not serve to further its interests in retaining the state. In the midst of drawn-out political turbulence, the party ultimately consented to Azmin taking control of Selangor to avoid the possibility being punished by a fatigued electorate if snap polls were held, which could result in the loss of seats for the party.

The menteri besar crisis, triggered by the ill-fated Kajang move, has widened the spilt between PAS and its partners in the opposition coalition. Internal discord within the Islamist party has strained cooperation between the conservative ulama and moderate figures regarding differences over the menteri besar candidacy.

PAS President Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang has been criticized by figures within and outside the party for his reluctance to support the stance of PKR and DAP, who backed Wan Azizah’s nomination for MB. At the recent PAS annual assembly, Hadi insisted that PAS would stick to its own principles rather than unquestioningly toeing the line of its coalition partners.

Speculation has been rife that the Islamist party would mull exiting from the opposition coalition during its assembly, as proposed by influential clerics in the party who feel that PAS’s alliance with opposition partners could potentially undermine the party’s philosophical underpinnings. Hadi dismissed that the Islamist party would break its partnership with Pakatan Rakyat. Far from being conciliatory, Hadi’s maneuvering is based on realpolitik.

It is widely accepted that PAS would be relegated to the political fringes if it abandoned its coalition partnership with PKR and DAP. Hadi has acknowledged that the party could never survive on its own in Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious political landscape.

The Islamist party was the worst performing component party of the opposition coalition during last year’s general elections and it has failed to obtain a state or federal seat in Sabah or Sarawak throughout its entire history. PAS’ fumbles in Terengganu and Kedah have only compounded the party’s lukewarm reception at the polls.

During the assembly, Hadi went on chastise his coalition partners, who he described as being 'intoxicated with power.' Reports also indicate that top DAP and PKR leaders snubbed PAS by failing to attend this year’s assembly, demonstrating the coalition’s fraying unity, though the PAS leadership brushed off their absence and downplayed the evident friction within the opposition coalition.

As a new menteri besar takes control, the attempted Kajang move, engineered by PKR to bring its president to power in the country’s most strategic state, has proven to be an ill-conceived gamble that has gone awry in nearly ever aspect. It has undermined the opposition coalition by widening the discord within Pakatan Rakyat while spurring on budding factionalism within PAS as an unintended consequence.

After failing to grasp Putrajaya during the last elections, PKR became intent on using Selangor to showcase its brand of governance. Residents in the state have been relatively satisfied with Abdul Khalid, who served as menteri besar since 2008. There have been no broad grassroots protest movements demanding his resignation during his tenure.

PKR expressed their disapproval with Abdul Khalid earlier this year, over his lax handling of the bible seizure issue, blunders and delays related to the state’s water shortages, and other issues that were used by the party to dent his image. It should be noted though that under his leadership, the state’s financial reserves have been the highest ever achieved in the history of Selangor, with a significant portion of annual budgets being channeled into developmental expenditure.

PKR should have addressed the perceived shortcomings of Abdul Khalid’s leadership with a program of coherent political solutions; it could have certainly concentrated on solving these issues in a practical way. Instead, the PKR leadership opted for an underhanded move to topple its own state government, inciting a political crisis to the detriment of the opposition coalition.

The failed Kajang move has undermined public trust and widened perceptions among the coalition’s support base that the opposition is just as capable of executing crude political maneuvers that smack of ‘old politics.’ These developments have sparked unhelpful hostility between Pakatan Rakyat and the Sultan of Selangor, exposing the poor internal communication and coordination infrastructure within the opposition coalition.

Chinese support for PAS and Malay perceptions toward the DAP are likely to be bruised by this incident, which has also worked against Wan Azizah, furthering impressions of her being a placeholder for the opposition leader as members of the coalition openly questioned her leadership capability.

PKR’s leadership is now the awkward position of having to settle for a menteri besar candidate that they did not choose, someone who may be more defiant than his predecessor on certain issues. Azmin is known for breaking with the party line to speak his mind, especially in cases where he has been put off by the theatrics of the opposition leader.

Azmin notably snubbed Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim over his botched mass protest campaign following last year’s defeat at the polls by failing to attend rallies; he raised eyebrows when tweeting about his disapproval with ‘politics that are over the top’ and urged his party to accept the election results and ‘focus on the rakyat, not yourselves.’

While a new meneri besar has been sworn in, it does not mean that the spectacle of vitriolic infighting within the opposition coalition will subside. This period of prolonged political crisis and failed Kajang move that gave rise to it has fueled perceptions that the coalition is in fact a tattered marriage of opportunism rather than a dependable partnership. The damage is already done.

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at