Dennis Ignatius: Anwar Ibrahim – a weak hand and a deeply divided nation

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Anwar has been dealt a weak hand – no majority, a deeply divided electorate, no clear consensus.

Jabatan Penerangan Malaysia

Finally, we have a new prime minister. The nation came close to catastrophe, but sanity prevailed. Like many other Malaysians, I rejoice that Pakatan Harapan is back in power, and that Anwar Ibrahim now has the opportunity to implement his widely supported ‘reformasi’ agenda.

The road ahead is going to be a long and difficult one. Neither stability nor success is guaranteed. Anwar is up against powerful forces who cannot abide the notion of a multi-ethnic coalition running the country. The anointing he received from the rulers will help but whether it is enough to forestall further challenges is to be seen.

The PAS-dominated Perikatan Nasional may have lost Putrajaya but their thirst for power remains undiminished. They will not go quietly into the night. It won’t be long before they go on the offensive against the Pakatan Harapan-led government with all the weapons at their disposal.

Every possible issue will be exploited to convince the Malay-Muslim electorate that Anwar cannot be trusted to defend race, religion and royalty. To stave off accusations from Malay-Muslim nationalists that he is not sufficiently committed to the Malay agenda, Anwar will have to make compromises that not all will be happy with. Hopefully, he will not have to give an arm and a leg just to keep BN on side.

DAP secretary-general Anthony Loke has wisely opted to keep a low profile. His public apology was critical in bringing GPS on board and helping to break the political impasse. It will certainly give Anwar greater room to manoeuvre.

DAP might also have to settle for less cabinet positions this time around in order to mollify concerns that the DAP is running the show. It is a huge price to pay, more so for a party with the second highest tally of seats in Parliament. Whether it is enough to satisfy fake fears about the DAP is something else.

Previously PH had to contend with traitors within its ranks; now with UMNO part of the government, it will have to contend with the demands of a party that shares little in common with the rest of PH. A ‘unity’ government might be very appealing to the public but making it work won’t be easy.

By its very nature, coalition governments can only function on the basis of compromise. All parties within the coalition must agree before anything can be done. This in itself will limit Anwar’s ability to get things done.

Politics, after all, is a zero-sum game; each party needs to win support and show its supporters that it can deliver on its promises.  Without a majority of his own, Anwar will have to tread a fine line in balancing the interests of his multiracial base. Zahid, on the other hand, will have to cater to a base long nurtured on a diet of race and religion to avoid being outflanked by PAS, Bersatu and even renegades within his own party.

With a divided cabinet and enemies without waiting to pounce, Anwar will be obliged to proceed with much caution and only after carefully building consensus around key reforms. It means that the pace of ‘reformasi’ is going to be slower than we’d like to see. Parts of the reform agenda may even have to be put off till after GE16.

Whatever it is, managing the competing demands of a deeply divided electorate will be no small challenge. Everybody has their own list of demands – higher wages, more inclusive government, Malay rights, the position of Islam, meritocracy, etc. – all loaded terms in Malaysian politics. Managing expectations and reconciling differences will be the ultimate test of Anwar’s negotiating skills and political acumen.

More than anything else, patience is the name of the game. Don’t blame Anwar if reforms are slow in coming; unlike Dr Mahathir in 2018, Anwar has been dealt a weak hand – no majority, a deeply divided electorate, no clear consensus. Proceeding cautiously with an agenda that can be sustained over the longer term might be preferable to rapid change that causes too much alarm and controversy.

Given our fractured political landscape, evolutionary rather than revolutionary change is the only pragmatic way forward.

Anwar’s greatest legacy may well be to help lower the temperature, get the nation accustomed to the idea of a more inclusive polity, rebuild the infrastructure of interethnic and interreligious relations and lay the groundwork for future political, economic and social reform.

Already, he has restored a measure of hope that despite all the obstacles a better future is still possible.

In the meantime, Anwar is right to focus on improving living conditions, especially for the B40 group. For too many Malaysians, the promise of a better life in the Malaysian sun has not been fulfilled. It is perhaps the one thing that all Malaysians can agree on.

We all wish him well; if he succeeds, Malaysia wins! – Dennis Ignatius