There is a logic to Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat working with its arch-nemesis UMNO. But it could well be that the former has lost its moral compass.
In what seems to be becoming a habit, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s hastily-convened press conference on Tuesday promised nuggets of new information and yielded but a whiff of gold dust. At the event, Anwar confirmed that talks between his party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) were, in fact, taking place. Stressing that it was premature to say anything definite, he stated that discussions on cooperation were in the “initial” stages.
The opposition leader further claimed that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin did not have a parliamentary majority, as a portion of the ruling coalition had actually pledged support to him. In contrast, he, Anwar, had an “adequate” majority. When pressed about who in UMNO he had been talking to, the opposition leader was coy – stating merely that he talked to “everybody”.
The announcement has certainly attracted attention and – at first blush – the possibility of an alliance between the two parties is intriguing. The timing is good, as it comes on the heels of UMNO’s decision to not cooperate with Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition in the next election. In the event of an election, the two parties would complement each other. UMNO polls well in rural, Malay-majority seats and PKR is strong in urban, multi-ethnic seats.
However, there are plenty of opponents to the hypothetical “unholy alliance” on both sides of the fence.
From UMNO’s side, the prospects of a tie-up with PKR would ultimately be unsatisfying. For, if the supremely confident party is deeply unhappy about its secondary position in Perikatan Nasional, how would this be resolved in an alliance with Anwar at its head? If relations between Malaysia’s grand old party and Muhyiddin’s upstart Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) are fraught, those between UMNO and PKR are even more complex, entrenched, and embittered. UMNO grassroots are vocal, plentiful, and influential, and an alliance with PKR – and by extension the Democratic Action Party – would give the tactical high-ground to PPBM in Malay-majority wards.
Small wonder, then, that UMNO leaders have not been welcoming of the prospect, with Information Chief Shahril Hamdan saying that the party’s rejection of Perikatan Nasional does not equate an agreement to work with PKR or DAP. Azalina Othman, Johor MP and Deputy Speaker of parliament, stressed the need for the party’s apex body, the Supreme Council, to agree to any such alliance.
While Anwar may be seeking the higher ground, his latest moves may cost him dearly.
On the other side of the fence, PKR members have sought to cast these discussions in a positive light, but PH coalition partners are hostile. Amanah leaders have questioned whether UMNO has truly “repented” for its actions and if it is ready to let Anwar be the prime ministerial candidate. The DAP Secretary-General, Lim Guan Eng, has rejected any form of cooperation. A multi-party group of younger opposition leaders has issued a declaration calling for PH to remain firm in opposing this deal.
Beyond the resistance to working with UMNO, which is seen by many as the root of many of Malaysia’s ills, the overt hostility is understandable if one asks who within UMNO Anwar has been talking to. The UMNO members in Muhyiddin’s cabinet are unlikely interlocuters, as they would be unwilling to jeopardise their positions. The “Independent” cluster in the party is also unlikely to agree, as many hail from mixed constituencies in the country’s south – where they would be competing with PKR. By a process of elimination, this, leaves the “Court Cluster”, which includes the likes of senior leaders like party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former prime minister Najib Razak. These are the “losers” in the current set-up and have the most to gain from a political “reset”. These are also the very same people that Amanah and the DAP are most hostile to working with.
Thus, in all likelihood, more than the unveiling of a sophisticated master plan, Anwar’s press conference seeks to underline his relevance, destabilise Perikatan Nasional, and inject some dynamism into the ranks of his party.
In reality, Anwar’s bid for some political momentum belies the fact that all is not well in PKR. In the past weeks, no less than three MPs have left the party to become PN-friendly independents. Granted, the first two – Larry Sng from Julau in Sarawak and Steven Choong from Tebrau in Johor – are not national-level figures. However, Dr Xavier Jayakumar, party Vice-President, MP of Kaula Langat in Selangor and former Minister of Water, Land, and Natural Resources under Pakatan Harapan, is a figure of towering import. One of the party’s initial founders back in 1998, Jayakumar announced his departure, stating he was deeply frustrated with the past year’s events, and that he disagreed with the opposition’s focus on attaining national office during a time of emergency.
An additional five PKR MPs have stated that they were made offers to leave Pakatan Harapan. Anwar and the party leadership have gone on the offensive, charging that these parliamentarians were induced to leave PH with mixture of threats such as in-depth investigations by the Internal Revenue Bureau and Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, as well as inducements such as full allocations for constituency work.
While Anwar may be seeking the higher ground, his latest moves may cost him dearly. By mooting working with UMNO, and more particularly the Court Cluster, PKR appears to have lost its moral compass. If he intends to sleep with the enemy, what is to prevent more MPs from supporting the government of the day?
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.