Tun Mahathir and Anwar are the two candidates wrestling for Pakatan Harapan’s candidate for Prime Minister. (Photo: Prachatai, Flickr)

Choosing Pakatan Harapan’s Prime Ministerial Candidate: Reconciling the Unreconcilable?

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The Pakatan Harapan coalition has a plan for a political comeback, based on (another) pact between Mahathir Mohamed and his erstwhile nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim. While a bitter pill for Anwar and his party, this looks to be the only option before them. That this is the only visible pathway back to power does not make it any more likely to happen.

Over the past weeks, discussions about the leadership of Malaysia’s former ruling coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH) have taken on a dualistic nature. They have been personal yet abstract, heated yet coldly calculating.

The choice of Pakatan Harapan’s candidate for prime minister is framed as one between two men – Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving national leader and the only person to have served as PM twice; and Anwar Ibrahim, his erstwhile deputy, former nemesis, and only person to claim the ignominy of having narrowly missed the top job on two occasions. 

At one level, the choice is one that is deeply personal for most Pakatan Harapan members – none more so than in Anwar’s party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). For them, much of their energy over the past two decades has been focussed on rehabilitating someone that has been the target of incessant political attacks by, first, Mahathir and then Najib Razak. In addition, until their rapprochement in 2017, Mahathir was seen as the source of many of the country’s ills, from a centralised executive to a weakened judiciary, and from a panoply of controls on political life to an almost non-existent line between business and politics. 

Yet, when the supporters of Pakatan Harapan 2.0 sans Mahathir are lined up and duly counted, the numbers are lacking. The members of PH’s core are the Democratic Action Party’s 42, PKR’s 38, and Parti Amanah Negara’s 11 MPs, yielding a total of 91 – a tad too far from the magical majority threshold of 112. It is only when Mahathir’s six Bersatu, Shafie Apdal’s nine Warisan, and the United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation’s lone parliamentarian are added to the mix, that the Pakatan Harapan ‘Plus’ faction reaches 107 members. While still a handful short, this means that this PH-Plus configuration is still in it with a shot. With this number, enticements for waverers to cross the floor can be targeted and a parliamentary majority is feasible.

For this to happen, then, a Mahathir interlude – however brief – has to be envisaged and tolerated. The temporary tenure touted by the elder stateman’s camp is a modest six months. Then, with his reputation and legacy intact, he would hand over the reins of power to Anwar. Would a signed, sealed and delivered contract between the two heavyweights hold water? However, even if a document were to be produced, there is no guarantee that it would be upheld. After all, Malaysian politics is replete with examples where such arrangements were more honoured in the breach than in the observance. 

A PKR departure would eliminate any possibility PH has of returning to power in the near future. It would also most likely consign Anwar Ibrahim’s party to a slow demise.

Even if the pact between Mahathir and Anwar pact holds, the former’s commitment to a wider reform agenda and an Anwar prime ministership are now seriously in question. After all, Pakatan Harapan’s twisted, turbulent toppling from power was effected by Mahathir’s former colleagues from Bersatu – and allegedly with initial instigation from the elder statesman himself. And, the planned power transition will resurface the same questions that were pertinent in the dying days of PH 1.0. Specifically, if Mahathir’s Bersatu faction and Warisan are unwilling to back Anwar now, why will they do so following a brief swansong by the former strongman of Malaysian politics? 

Still, there is much store put into PH 2.0. People like the DAP’s Liew Chin Tong have argued that PH deliberations should not focus unduly on Mahathir, as the coalition’s real foes are the likes of Muhyiddin and Najib Razak. However, while the DAP and Amanah have supported a bid for power led by Mahathir and Anwar, PKR has been noticeably silent. Indeed, some members have openly advocated for the party to leave Pakatan Harapan.

This last option bodes ill for PKR as well as PH. A PKR departure would eliminate any possibility PH has of returning to power in the near future. It would also most likely consign Anwar Ibrahim’s party to a slow demise. Due to the diverse nature of Malaysian politics, parties need to form part of a larger coalition to be electorally viable. Furthermore, in addition to their loyalty to Anwar Ibrahim, the PKR rank and file also have commitments to ideals that they want to be able to pursue effectively.  Caught in between PN and PH, PKR would most likely see its MPs gravitate to other parties.

While the choice ahead for Pakatan Harapan is fraught, time is of the essence. The longer the debate drags on, the more time it affords Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia’s new Prime Minister, to solidify his position. In the past weeks, he has been moving on two fronts. He has offered MPs in his coalition, Perikatan Nasional, choice positions in government-linked corporations. He is also advancing towards a difficult, but much sought-after, agreement with coalition heavyweights (the United Malays National Organisation and Parti Islam SeMalaysia) to divvy up the seats to be contested in the Peninsula’s Malay-majority constituencies. The fact is that the window for Pakatan Harapan to wrest back control of the country is inexorably closing – and fast.

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