Dennis Ignatius: In Opposition, PH Also Disappoints

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PH urged to get their act together and start doing what they were elected to do.

When Pakatan Harapan (PH) lost power last February, there was much hope that they would quickly learn from their mistakes, get their act together and come back ready to continue the struggle with determination and renewed vigour. Even if they couldn’t retake Putrajaya, there was an expectation that they would quickly prove to be strong and effective in Opposition. Sadly, they are now turning out to be a disappointment even in that role.

Having a backdoor government like Perikatan Nasional (PN) must surely be a godsend for opposition politicians. After all, there’s a huge cache of issues to attack them with – crimping debate in Parliament, crony appointments, billions being spent without parliamentary approval and oversight, the sudden withdrawal of charges or sweetheart deals being made with those charged with corruption, the growing crackdown on dissent, the government’s handling of the pandemic, the haphazard economic recovery plans, etc.

Given this situation, one would have thought that Malaysians would be treated to an avalanche of stirring and impassionate opposition attacks on government malfeasance and abuse of power. Indeed, the PN government’s performance in its first 100 days in office provides a brilliant backdrop for PH to differentiate itself from the backdoor government.

And yet, PH comes across as weak and ineffective, too engrossed in its own problems, too distracted by infighting to provide much of an opposition. They are so self-absorbed that they even opted out of the Chini by-election, using the pandemic as an excuse. What good is an opposition coalition if it cannot even muster the courage to challenge the much-despised PN government in a by-election?

Nothing exemplifies the continuing disarray in PH than their inability to get past the long-standing Mahathir-Anwar divide. It took them the better part of three months after the collapse of the PH government just to organize a face-to-face meeting between the pair. After their meeting earlier this week, they all came out apparently smiling behind their face masks but with nothing to say except that “good progress” was being made after “comprehensive discussions.” In other words, there’s still no meeting of minds.

The DAP, in particular, appears obsessed with trying to bridge the gap between Mahathir and Anwar with DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong publicly calling on both leaders to work together.

Joshua Paul/Bloomberg

Ironically, despite the fact that Mahathir was apparently planning to ditch them, the DAP still feels that Mahathir is needed if only to assuage Malay concerns about the DAP. Only Mahathir, so the thinking goes, can neutralise the racist tirades that are levelled against the DAP every time Malay supremacists feel in chill in their bones, never mind that he has consistently refused to rise to the occasion in the past.

It is an admission as well that many in PH are not exactly confident in Anwar’s ability to stand up to the Ketuanan Melayu bunch or win sufficient support from the Malay electorate.

Until the Mahathir-Anwar issue is resolved one way or the other, PH can forget about retaking Putrajaya now or come GE15; what a tragedy that the nation’s hopes for a better future continue to be held hostage by the tiresome and ruinous struggle between two leaders who are now well past their political shelf life.

In the meantime, the country does not, for all intents and purposes, have a credible opposition.  What we have is a bunch of politicians fixated on numbers, musing about various scenarios and assuring everyone that they are united and firm in their principles.

Despite his wide experience in both politics and government and his long years planning a comeback, Anwar has yet to provide the dynamic leadership that is desperately needed. Being leader of the Opposition is his first real chance to prove his mettle. Now is his time to shine, to articulate his vision for the nation, to build a following, to win public support in preparation for the next election. There is no time to lose; the writ could be dropped at any time.

And yet, where is Anwar? Sure, the pandemic does not help but that should not stop him from speaking out and campaigning via social media, organizing virtual town hall meetings and seminars, and galvanizing the PH base. His use thus far of social media is uninspiring and insipid to say the least.

Where too are all the other hitherto fiery and passionate PH politicians? They should go after the PN government with grit and tenacity – go on the offensive, expose their wrongdoings, protest their harmful policies, lift the morale of the people, fire up the base, give people hope to start believing in PH again. That’s what opposition leaders do, isn’t it?

And fight. Fight for every parliamentary and state seat that becomes available. Fight for what is right. Better to go down fighting than give up without a fight. Better to lose face standing up for what is right than go quietly into the night.

Already there’s growing talk about the need for a third force. It is predicated upon the rising disenchantment with PN as much as with PH. There’s a window of opportunity for PH to redefine itself and present voters with a real alternative, one that speaks to their hopes and dreams. If PH continues to dither, continues to be consumed from within, it shouldn’t be surprised if voters start looking for alternatives or turn off completely.

The PN government is a disaster in the making. Internal rivalries, corruption and cronyism, incompetent ministers and massive economic dislocation are, in all likelihood, going to make it one of the most unpopular governments we’ve ever had. Better for PH to bide its time in Opposition, learn from its mistakes and regain the trust and confidence of the people than seek to rush back to Putrajaya divided, distracted and in disarray.

Whatever it is, the message to PH from voters is clear enough: the nation is hurting and in disarray; for heaven’s sake get your act together and start doing what you were elected to do.