KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 1 — Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s credibility took a big hit after last Thursday’s Budget 2021 debacle in Parliament, analysts said.
This could potentially have an adverse effect on Anwar’s standing as Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) prime minister of choice, they suggested, pointing to the flak directed at the opposition coalition on social media.
Many PH supporters and sympathisers who wanted Opposition lawmakers to test Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s majority in Parliament said they were peeved by the coalition’s action, and accused them of pandering or cowardice.
But Anwar may have had no choice, argued Datuk Mohamad Abu Bakar, political scientist at Universiti Malaya.
With several recent opinion polls tilting favourably towards Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Mohamad suggested that blocking the Budget would have been akin to political suicide, as Anwar and the Opposition risked alienating voters already distrustful of his coalition.
“Anwar and PH were able to salvage their position in the face of this challenge because they were up against great odds in view of the popular support for the Budget,” he said.
“I say salvage because they stood to lose more. So in some ways it’s a great tactical move on their (Muhyiddin and the Perikatan Nasional government) part. But whether or not intentional I’m not sure.”
Last Thursday, Anwar directed all Opposition lawmakers to allow the Budget passage in a meeting convened at the very last minute, ditching the initial plan to make the Budget vote a referendum on Muhyiddin’s government.
In a statement explaining the decision, the Opposition leader conceded that the move was sudden and unpopular among PH’s allies but stressed that it was politically crucial.
Voting against it, Anwar argued, would have put PH in a bad light.
He said the call had to be made after Finance Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz announced several surprise allocations, mostly for poor households and those most vulnerable during the pandemic, and rejecting them would have been politically costly.
But the PKR president vowed to make the committee stage harder for the government, in a seeming attempt to appease supporters.
Anwar suggested the Opposition may force a vote on each allocation if the government fails to heed their demand, and is not discounting voting against the Budget at the final stage.
Still, analysts believe there is a limit to how far the Opposition can go without risking backlash from the rakyat.
“Anwar and PH will have to ensure their priorities are aligned in the weeks to come to deliver what they purportedly promised — line-by-line scrutiny of each ministry’s allocation,” said Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, senior associate at Vriens & Partners, a public policy and political risk consultancy.
“In the coming weeks, the proof in the pudding will be for Anwar and company not to try and engineer a Budget defeat, but to function as His Majesty’s loyal Opposition.”
But it is unclear if all PH component parties are in agreement about defeating the Budget. Anwar is said to be facing internal pressure to deliver on the defections he promised in October, a condition set by the DAP and Amanah in return for their support.
The two parties had initially backed Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as their prime minister of choice, on the assumption that he can still draw support even from across the political divide.
Some observers read this as a sign of dipping confidence in Anwar. The incident last Thursday in Parliament where several Amanah MPs stood up to force a vote despite the directive not to do so, to one analyst, was the latest sign that suggested growing disenchantment in Anwar’s ability.
“Whether Thursday was a tactical move or a communications error, only Anwar and the PH leadership will truly know,” Shazwan said.
“What is clear is that while the Perikatan Nasional government’s advantage in Parliament hangs by a thread, the Opposition is in disarray and disunited. Anwar has to consolidate his support base and plan his next move carefully.”
Malay Mail was made to understand that Anwar has pleaded with allies to give him “one more week” to prove he has the numbers after failing to challenge Budget 2021 this week.
Sources said the PKR president conveyed this to his allies in Parliament after the voting on Thursday. He was said to have offered his resignation as PH chief should he fail.
In mid-October, Anwar claimed that he had secured “a formidable and convincing” majority, and in that same month had an audience with the Agong ostensibly to seek permission to form a new government.
But the takeover failed to materialise. The Palace later issued a statement revealing that the PKR president had only presented the number of MPs said to be with him but not their names.
Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the Budget 2021 vote bungle would likely reinforce the growing sense of doubt about Anwar’s political strength.
“Anwar’s claim of a majority hinges on Umno backbenchers led by Zahid and Najib and at some point it became clear to Anwar, and actually, to everybody that Zahid decided to vote in favour of the Budget,” Oh said, referring to Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and his predecessor Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
The committee stage debate of Budget 2021 will end today and voting will take place on Wednesday.
Oh suggests there is still a chance that the Umno-Anwar pact could proceed, with the new government likely able to reverse negative public opinion that may arise from PN’s collapse.
“If the Umno backbenchers could eventually be flipped and the Budget defeated, then they are a new government, and could switch on the government propaganda machinery in full swing in the opposite direction,” he said.