Dennis Ignatius: Where oh Where Is the Leader of the Opposition?

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It’s time for Anwar to step up or step down.

The country is in the midst of a grave crisis. Political instability has all but paralyzed the government. The governing coalition is deeply divided and struggling to hold on to power. Its wafer-thin majority in Parliament is tenuous; a death or a tempting offer could bring down the government. Talk of a snap election is growing.

At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the country into economic turmoil. While the government has done a decent job of managing the pandemic, the economic consequences are now piling up. Malaysia’s real GDP contracted by 17.1% in the second quarter of 2020, the worst in our history. Reports indicate that some 14% of the workforce could face unemployment while many more will have to endure pay cuts. The next couple of years might well be the hardest, most difficult years that the nation has ever faced.

Such an environment ought to be fertile ground for opposition parties. After all, at times like this, the failures and weaknesses of the ruling party and the bankruptcy of their ideas and policies are more keenly felt by voters than at other times. It’s a time when people look for hope. It is a time when leaders are made, and political parties differentiate and distinguish themselves from their opponents.

But where, oh where is Anwar Ibrahim, the Leader of the Opposition? Shouldn’t he be out there inspiring the nation with his vision, forging the opposition into a credible force, taking the government to task for all its missteps and mistaken policies? Shouldn’t he be filling the blogosphere with policy pronouncements and highlighting what needs to be done to help the thousands of Malaysians who have lost their jobs or are facing harsh economic conditions?

In the midst of all the division and discord, shouldn’t he be out there giving hope and promoting a vision for Malaysia that is inclusive and just? And, given the increasingly fragile political situation, shouldn’t he be front and centre in preparing PH for a snap election?

Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, with only the barest hint of a political party behind him, is grabbing headlines, drawing defectors to his side and positioning himself to lead yet again. Even Najib Tun Razak, despite his conviction on charges of graft, is making more waves than the leader of the opposition. Every time there’s a by-election he is all over the place challenging the opposition, defending his record in office and, of course, fishing for sympathy.

Anwar, on the other hand, seems stuck on the sidelines. He was indecisive when it came to dealing with Azmin Ali’s treachery; he dithered for too long and allowed the problem to fester until gangrene set in. Now he appears to be dithering again; he has yet to revive his party’s fortunes and infuse it with a new sense of purpose at a critical moment in our history.

Just look at what PKR vice-president Chang Lih Kang, the only PKR leader to turn up in the Slim constituency thus far, had to say to voters; according to press reports, he called on “whoever wins the Slim by-election to deliver on promises to voters….” What sort of campaign strategy is that? If that’s PKR’s message to the voters of Slim, PKR should do everyone a favour and stay away from the constituency.

It is yet another sign that Pakatan Harapan is rudderless. In fact, such is the disarray in PH that the DAP is now even thinking of making peace with the Perikatan Nasional (PN) backdoor government in exchange for financial allocations for opposition-held constituencies and restarting the system of parliamentary select committees that PH put in place, as if that will solve anything.

Let’s be clear: nothing good can come out of cooperating with a coalition utterly bereft of principles and bankrupt of any real ideas to solve our nation’s problems. PN is, after all, a coalition premised upon Malay supremacy; it has nothing to offer a plurality of Malaysians. Cooperating with PN was, of course, unimaginable a few months ago; could it be an indication that the DAP leadership has given up on Anwar? Unable to take the lead themselves without inviting a backlash and with no one worthy enough to follow into battle, the DAP seems to be mulling the unthinkable – a phoney peace with PN.

There is no doubt that Anwar has been unfairly treated, but the question now is whether he can put the past behind him and be the leader that Malaysia needs. People need to know what he stands for, what he can offer the nation, whether he has what it takes to steer a deeply divided and distressed nation forward. There is no doubt that voters are fed up with PN and are ready for change, but Anwar (and PH) has given them nothing to get excited about. People can’t follow an invisible man or get passionate about a non-existent vision; it’s time for Anwar to step up or step down.

There’s still hope that PH can make a comeback. After only a few months in power, cracks are beginning to appear in the PN façade. With Mahathir breathing down its neck and UMNO unwilling to forget and forgive, PPBM is becoming shakier with each passing day. Even the much-vaunted alliance between UMNO and PAS is not as solid as it is made out to be. And UMNO itself is no longer the monolithic party it once was. All that boasting about Malay unity could fall apart soon enough when they finally sit down to discuss seat allocations for the next general election.

A focused, determined and united opposition could make a lot of headway in firing up voters, especially if it has a clear and compelling message and a credible leader. GE14 showed the power of the people when they are motivated and galvanized into action. If Anwar can’t be the man to do that, he shouldn’t be surprised if voters start reluctantly gravitating back to Mahathir again.  And this time, Anwar will have no one but himself to blame.