As discord dogs Pakatan’s upper echelon, pundits warn voter patience wearing thin

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad attend the Ceramah Mega in Port Dickson October 8, 2018. — Picture by Azneal Ishak
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad attend the Ceramah Mega in Port Dickson October 8, 2018. — Picture by Azneal Ishak

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 28 — When PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim trained his guns on unnamed enemies blaming him for his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar’s shock semi-retirement from active politics, analysts saw it as a clear sign of deep factional fighting within Pakatan Harapan (PH).

The magnitude of the conflict somewhat mirrors that of the political turmoil in 1998, when Anwar, who was at that time the deputy prime minister, was said to have launched a takeover bid against his superior, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, which led to his eventual sacking — and the country’s subsequent plunge into crisis.

Fast-forward 20 years, and both leaders find themselves in the exact same situation. Political pundits believe Anwar and second-time prime minister Dr Mahathir’s camps are now in the thick of a power tussle stemming from the latter’s alleged desire to hasten the power transition from the timeframe already agreed upon by both leaders.

Political analysts feel the discord has the potential to destabilise Dr Mahathir’s administration.

Pointing to the mounting public criticism against PH leaders in recent weeks, they said failure to contain the power wrangle from escalating may cause another political upheaval.

“I think they have to ask what is the root of the conflict,” said Sivamurugan Pandian of Universiti Sains Malaysia.

“If it is because of continuous suspicious of each other by supporters or the question of ‘power’ and ‘authority’. Any internal conflict can affect the leadership as it comes from within.”

Last week, Anwar broke his silence on Nurul Izzah’s shock resignation from all her party and government positions, saying she was fed up with the power play behind the scenes that has continued despite a regime change.

The invective was ostensibly directed at Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), even as Anwar himself had been accused of political scheming and nepotism by his own party members.

In the scathing statement issued two days after Nurul Izzah announced her resignation, Anwar blasted the party’s acceptance of Umno defectors as a way to shore up power for “nefarious ends”.

Observers said the allegation was a culmination of the growing hostility between Anwar and Dr Mahathir’s camps caused by suspicion of a purported plan by PPBM leaders to block the former from taking office. Dr Mahathir and his allies, however, have rubbished the allegation.

More than 20 Umno MPs are planning to or have joined PPBM, and should more defections take place, the new Malay party could see its federal seat tally increase to over 40, bringing it closer to PKR’s 50. PPBM now has 16 seats under its control.

The open animosity between the two camps drew strong criticism not only from within PH, but also from influential civil society leaders with considerable backing from non-partisan middle-class voters, the coalition’s power-base.

Among the critics was former Malaysian Bar president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, who explicitly warned PH that voter confidence in the coalition had rapidly diminished just months after it took power as a result of the public spats.

James Chin of the University of Tasmania said while the Mahathir-Anwar rivalry is unlikely to escalate into full-blown hostilities, the frustration expressed by these civil society leaders could have enough of an impact to drive swing voters away from PH in the next elections.

“For both men, the stakes are too high to lead to open conflict,” Chin told Malay Mail.

“The danger is outside PH. The voters may see this as a coalition that is incapable of ruling. This, if not handled properly, may cause PH to lose the next general election.”

The discord has forced other senior PH leaders, like DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang, to be on the defensive. The Iskandar Puteri MP has since called for a ceasefire and proposed an internal communication channel be opened to resolve disputes.

There was also the suggestion that PH leaders should be blocked from making public statements without permission, a proposal that analysts said underscored the gravity of the situation.

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