It’s time to stop believing that Malaysia’s opposition is viable
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It’s time to stop believing that Malaysia’s opposition is viable

PAKATAN’S most stalwart defenders have always insisted that all the coalition needs is time. They’d insist that while Malaysia’s main Opposition movement may seem troubled and prone to infighting now, it would eventually mature into a viable substitute to the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government. Don’t worry about concrete goals and timelines. Pakatan will get there, eventually. Somehow.

But it’s now time – even well past it – to recognize that it is never going to meet that modest threshold. The events of this week, and indeed over many years, have proven that Pakatan is not only utterly unprepared to form the next government, but deeply and inherently unserious about governing.

This is no longer a theoretical question – you’ve never had duck, but think you might fancy it – we know from Pakatan’s repeated and public behavior that it is incapable of governing the country. And it’s not a matter of giving Pakatan more time – the problem is at the core of the coalition itself. Dysfunction is irrevocably baked into Pakatan, and all the wishful thinking and inter-party marital counselling sessions in the world aren’t about to make it go away.

The very public feud between Pakatan’s DAP and PKR parties over seat allocation in the Sarawak state elections is a case in point. After failed negotiations, both parties are now contesting against each other in six state constituencies in multi-cornered fights, threatening to split the vote and hand easy victories to BN.

Now this would be embarrassing enough if the opposition parties didn’t sign a new agreement in January, to much self-congratulatory fanfare, that was designed to prevent just that. In fact, via the agreement, both parties are now at risk of being ejected from the coalition for violating the rules that they themselves drew up.

BN has long skewered Pakatan for being a bunch of disunited, quarrelsome bedfellows. But Pakatan is an odd animal that, when faced with criticism, aggressively strives to prove critics right.

Are they calling us gluttons? Well, let’s call a press conference and have one hundred buckets of ice-cream! That’ll show ’em!

And boy, they certainly showed us this week.

The agreement in January and the formation of Pakatan Harapan last year were supposed to signal the (16578th) final end of the constant inter-party strife that snuffed out the opposition coalition’s last iteration, Pakatan Rakyat. The new coalition would no longer adhere to the ‘agree to disagree’ philosophy that allowed ex-coalition member and Islamist party PAS to seek the implementation of Islamic hudud law in the conservative state of Kelantan, much to the dismay of its more secular partners.

This time, decisions by the inter-party presidential council would be enforced. Punishment would be met out to violators of the agreement. Order and cooperation would rule the day. We know how that turned out.

Some forget, perhaps willfully, that Pakatan – whether in Rakyat or Harapan form – has a long and ridiculously consistent history of feuding, dysfunction, and break-ups. There are far too many to list in a single article. But in February, the DAP-led state government in Penang fired two PKR state assemblymen from their roles at state government-linked companies, sparking a period of tension between the parties.

That incident and the most recent one in Sarawak are significant because they involve the two more secular and ‘progressive’ parties of the opposition. PAS, the conservative Islamist party that it is, was always accused by Pakatan supporters of being the ideological misfit and central cause of discord in the coalition. DAP-PKR feuds prove otherwise – while PAS was surely a problematic coalition member, conflict and dysfunction are inevitable in Pakatan, no matter the party.

And this fact is borne out by the half-comical, half-pathetic series of quarrels within Pakatan that stretch back for nearly a decade now – or nearly two, if you count Barisan Alternatif (a coalition that featured DAP, PAS, and an early version of PKR). During that lengthy period, they fought over the same issues over and over again – hudud, seat allocation, local council elections, and state government positions.

Who can forget that in 2014, PKR launched a campaign, now notoriously known as the ‘Kajang Move’, to oust its own Chief Minister of Selangor? The whole fiasco sparked a months-long crisis in Malaysia’s richest state, and a very public war between DAP-PKR and PAS. It’s worth mentioning that Pakatan officials in that same state were arguing as early as 2009 over even where beer could be sold. The notion that opposition politicians would achieve maturity through governance was pure fantasy.

Each time Pakatan entered periods of strife and public embarrassment, its officials would plead for patience, understanding, and faith. They would apologize and promise to do better next time, as they are already doing now in regard to the mess in Sarawak. And come next elections, they’ll claim that the problems have been fixed. This time, we’re all united. This time, we’re ready. This time, we won’t screw up. Call it the recurring drug addict’s approach to politics. You probably shouldn’t hope for a happy ending.

Even more absurd is the notion, proposed by some Pakatan officials, that infighting is part of democracy, contrasting themselves to the hierarchical nature of BN. But we embrace democracy not for the sake of democracy. We embrace democracy for the sake of good government.

In Pakatan’s case, you wouldn’t trust them to run a Ramly burger stall, much less the government of Malaysia. They might come to blows over who gets to cook the patties and who gets to butter the buns. Who knows? They might actually resolve that culinary impasse, but only after six presidential council meetings, eight press conferences, and a coin toss. And oh, watch for Pakatan’s next feud and re-read this paragraph. You’d be amazed by my powers of prognostication.

So why do so many voters continue to reward Pakatan at the polls after repeated instances of bad behavior and broken promises? BN may be rife with problems, but none loom larger than the utter chaos Pakatan would bring to the federal government and the economy should they win in the next general election.

If Pakatan parties are unable to agree even on candidates in state elections, you shouldn’t expect them to agree on a prime minister and a cabinet line-up – that’s precisely why, apart from DAP’s sad and unilateral attempt at it, they’ve never put forward a shadow cabinet. Imagine if they won Putrajaya: consider the massive economic and national security consequences of a protracted squabble over ministerial positions. For decades, BN engaged in speculative fearmongering over a Pakatan takeover. Those efforts are no longer speculative – Pakatan’s dysfunction is very real and very permanent.

Pakatan voters need to stock of this. They often defend their vote against BN by asserting that the ruling government will never learn unless it loses. Paraphrasing a popular saying, they claim voting for BN again and again, and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. If they really mean what they say, they need to apply the same principle to the opposition as a whole.

Malaysia’s opposition parties will never undertake the broad and deep reforms that they need to form a viable government in waiting unless they are punished at the polls. Pakatan may be beyond hope, but perhaps something promising may rise from its ashes. The question is whether opposition voters have the courage and integrity to do the necessary.