By Elizabeth Looi and Ng Boon Hooi
1 Dec 08 : 9.00AM
FOR all intents and purposes, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is not a man who gives up easily.
At Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)'s just-concluded national congress, he failed to adequately explain why Pakatan Rakyat did not manage to take over the federal government by 16 Sept as repeatedly promised. The failure to fulfil one promise, however, didn't stop the party advisor from setting new goals for the opposition.
The new goal is the takeover of the Sarawak government by the time the state holds its next elections, latest by 2011.
That was the topic that gripped the three-day congress, which ended on 30 Nov, at Stadium Malawati Shah Alam where the largest opposition party gathered for the first time since its spectacular victory in the 8 March 2008 general election.
Although PKR has never been popular in East Malaysia, Anwar, who is also opposition leader, was confident about winning the state elections with the support of the other Pakatan Rakyat members, PAS and DAP.
"I will make sure that all of PKR's wakil rakyat and members start going to Sarawak next month to do their groundwork," he said during his public speech on 29 Nov, to loud cheers and applause.
Vice-president Azmin Ali also told reporters the party planned to organise a big rally in Miri on 14 Dec.
But is this yet another attempt to whip up the people's imagination for more change, as 16 Sept seemed to be, or is Anwar's new goal realistic?
Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud has predictably scoffed at Anwar's declaration.
He's not the only one who is sceptical. Political analyst Ong Kian Ming says PKR is being over-ambitious and they should instead start with trying to break Barisan Nasional's two-thirds majority in Sarawak.
"I don't think they can win the state. They will win between 25% and 40% of seats. That will give them some headway and it will be significant," he says in an e-mail interview.
He adds that Pakatan Rakyat should first overcome various challenges before trying to rule the state. Among these are the disagreement between PKR and DAP in Sarawak, and whether PKR is able to attract eligible Dayak leaders for the elections.
"Can they also overcome the resource imbalance in Sarawak which, because of its relative poverty and inaccessibility, makes more of a difference than in the peninsular?" asks Ong.
Ong opines that Taib, who has been chief minister since 1981 and hounded by allegations of corruption, could be one of the factors that swings the peoples' votes.
"I don't think Sarawakians are happy with him but Sarawak is not the same as the US. You can shift the popular vote by 5% and win the presidency in the US but in Sarawak, you can shift the popular vote by 5% and win only 10 state seats more," Ong explains.
He also points out that the Dayaks themselves are split, resulting in an unstable political landscape.
Longing for change
Political analyst Dr Mohammad Agus Yusoff, however, believes that the people have been longing for change and are ready for a new government.
He is confident that Pakatan Rakyat can win the state elections because of anti-Taib sentiments. Mohammad Agus argues that in the past, the Malays continued to vote for Taib, despite his perceived reputation, because they did not have any other Muslim leader to choose from.
"Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders have lost their credibility at the federal as well as state level, and Pakatan Rakyat now seems irresistible to the people," he says, adding that now was the best time for Anwar to bring changes to Sarawak.
The Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia associate professor adds, however, that the biggest challenge for Pakatan Rakyat and PKR is to convince the Dayak and Chinese voters who make up the majority of the 2.5 million population.
Sarawak PKR deputy liaison chairperson Nicholas Anggat Bawin (pic. left) agrees that Sarawakians are desperate for change. "The 8 March political tsunami in the peninsular has reached Sarawak. It is a big inspiration for us that change is possible."
Nicholas, who is former Sarawak National Party vice-president and deputy youth leader, adds that the Dayaks are tired of losing their rights, especially their land rights.
Notwithstanding PKR's chances of winning in Sarawak, the question still needs to be asked: Is this yet another tactic to enhance PKR's public image and support, and for Pakatan Rakyat to keep the BN on its toes? The promise that was 16 Sept seemed to be just that, especially since no credible explanation has been forthcoming about why 16 Sept didn't result in a change in government.
Indeed, Pakatan Rakyat is already being pressured by civil society to live up to its promises, instead, it seems, of offering new ones. In a 28 Nov joint statement, 20 civil society organisations called on the loose opposition coalition to expeditiously form a shadow cabinet to prove that it was ready to and capable of taking over the federal government.
"Nearly nine months after the March elections, Pakatan Rakyat which vowed to take over federal executive power via crossover of BN parliamentarians must now be prepared to show that they are not only interested to govern, but are able to do so," the joint statement said.
"Positioning himself as the prime-minister-in-waiting, Anwar Ibrahim must present his team of ministers-in-waiting not later than his rival (Datuk Seri) Najib Razak announces his line-up in March (2009).
"(A) shadow cabinet is a common feature in Westminster democracies as it indicates the opposition's readiness to take over governing if the incumbent government is defeated in a parliamentary no-confidence vote or an election," the statement added.
Among others, the civil society groups said having a shadow cabinet would consolidate the position of Pakatan Rakyat component parties on policies at a time when the parties have been publicly contradicting themselves. Such contradictions have occurred over issues such as the proposed 50% housing quota for bumiputeras in Kedah; the appointment of a Chinese Malaysian woman to head the Selangor State Development Corporation (PKNS); and the sale of alcohol in Selangor.
But PKR deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali disagrees that there is a lack of effort on their part to prepare to take over.
"Instead of a shadow cabinet, our parliamentarians have formed committees to check and balance the government," he tells The Nut Graph.
He says Malaysia has a different kind of democracy from Britain's, adding: "We do not have to necessarily follow everything in the Westminster democracy. Their political parties are Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, but our political parties are different."
Azmin adds that Pakatan Rakyat's committees cover most of the senior cabinet portfolios such as international trade and industry, and economy.
Plate will be full
Indeed, it seems unlikely that Pakatan Rakyat will form a shadow cabinet anytime soon to convince the rakyat that they are capable of fulfilling their takeover promise, especially in the absence of any evidence to suggest they can.
With an upcoming by-election in Kuala Terengganu, and now new hopes for Sarawak, taking over the federal government may not be the immediate priority, earlier promises notwithstanding.
PKR may have high hopes in Sarawak but it will be a tough fight considering that opposition parties have traditionally been weak in the East Malaysian states.
Still, hope springs eternal because Anwar, the politician, has demonstrated the ability to win despite all odds. So far, the 8 March election results hold him in good stead. But can he withstand emerging scepticism and growing cynicism if he offers yet another promise he is unable to deliver on?