Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Malaysia's opposition

The opposition scores an own goal with a flawed internal election

NEVER before in South-East Asia’s history had a political party dared to hold a one-person, one-vote internal poll, with all the officers to be elected by all the members, or so claims Malaysia’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), led by Anwar Ibrahim. Yet this is just what the party has done over the past month. The bold idea was to turn the PKR into a “modern, open party”, in the words of Tian Chua, one of the policy’s architects, and to help “democratise” Malaysian politics at the same time.

All entirely laudable, except that it hasn’t quite turned out that way. In fact the result was a mess, weakening the PKR in the eyes of the electorate. By one measure the party even looks less democratic.

For a start, the election was hardly an exercise in mass participation. Though the PKR claims a membership of about 450,000, at most one-tenth that number actually voted. Party bosses blame logistical difficulties for preventing many members from getting to polling offices or even hearing about the vote. Their critics claim the low turnout has exposed the myth that the PKR is a mass party and say that its members’ apathy counts as a protest vote.

One man has become their rallying-point. Zaid Ibrahim, a former government minister, was running for deputy president of the party. But he quit the race on November 20th, alleging that the polling was rigged against him in favour of Anwar’s choice for the post. Zaid Ibrahim said there was widespread electoral fraud and that the election was designed merely to “project the appearance” of democracy.

The PKR was founded in 1999 as a vehicle for Anwar after he split from the government. It is the central plank of a coalition including an Islamist party and an ethnic-Chinese party. Together they stand in opposition to the governing coalition, which is heavily dominated by the United Malays National Organisation.

These internal elections were supposed to prove that the PKR is now a political institution rather than a one-man band.

Handing yet more ammunition to the critics, the big winner of these elections was Anwar’s daughter, Nurul. Already an MP, at the tender age of 30 she has been elected one of the party’s four vice-presidents. With her father the party’s de facto leader and her mother its president, the younger Anwar’s elevation gives the impression that the PKR is becoming dynastic. That is hardly the sort of transformation that party bosses were hoping to advertise. The charismatic Nurul argues that she took the initiative to put herself forward; reports suggest that her father had been against her standing.

Looking back on the wreckage, Mr Chua admits he did not appreciate how risky these elections would be. But despite “technical” glitches, he says, the trend towards democracy “cannot be reversed”: in the long run the party will come to appreciate internal democracy and forget about Anwar’s family.

How voters see it is another matter. The opposition, having done well in 2008, when it deprived the ruling party of its two-thirds parliamentary majority, is reeling from self-inflicted wounds that have left the prime minister, Najib Razak, looking stronger. A few voices are even urging Mr Najib to take advantage of the PKR’s disarray and call a snap election.

That probably won’t happen. But with Mr Anwar’s second trial for sodomy dragging through the courts, and now these splits and allegations of fraud, the “political tsunami” of 2008 feels an age away. The Economist

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