By Ding Jo-Ann
THE knives have been out for Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) since its candidate Datuk Zaid Ibrahim lost the Hulu Selangor by-election to the MIC’s P Kamalanathan. Analysis and commentaries have emerged calling PKR the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s “weakest link”. There have also been “unnamed sources” citing internal bickering, a weak election machinery, and lack of ideological strength as further PKR weaknesses.
Kamalanathan (left) and Zaid on nomination day, 17 April
PR leaders have hit back. They accuse the Barisan Nasional (BN) of running an unfair campaign by bribing voters with election goodies and using federal government resources for partisan benefits.
But is there merit to the brickbats from PKR critics? Are party leaders aware of PKR’s weaknesses? And are steps being taken to rectify them, to prepare the party to face a possibly resurgent BN in the next general election?
PKR vice-president Dr Lee Boon Chye admits that weaknesses have emerged, after evaluating their performance in Hulu Selangor. For one, the party’s machinery is weak in rural areas, Lee tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview. “We need to see how we have failed to communicate our message [to rural constituents], so our machinery in those areas is crucial.”
Lee says it wouldn’t be right to blame PKR’s loss on voter immaturity, as some have done, as he says it was for the party to communicate its message to voters.
PKR elections director Fuziah Salleh also sees the Hulu Selangor by-election results as a wake-up call. “We have to recognise that even though the Selangor PR government has done a lot of good things, the public may not know about this … We need to train our councillors and committee members to communicate effectively with the grassroots about what the PR government is doing and what we stand for.”
Practicalities vs democracy
PKR strategic director Tian Chua says perhaps PKR has been concentrating too much on administrative reforms and instilling democratic values, and has not paid enough attention to basic livelihood issues.
Chua “We must be able to demonstrate that the economic life of the people under our governments has improved,” says Chua. For example, he says, the party needs to show it has programmes to protect the interests of low-income groups.
“Umno under (Prime Minister Datuk Seri) Najib Razak has managed to convince segments of the marginalised Malay [Malaysian] community that they still need a strong Umno to protect their racial and economic interests.
“We need to be able to show that PR governments, such as in Penang and Selangor, are able to protect the interests of disadvantaged groups of all races,” Chua says.
At the same time, Fuziah says PKR needs to conduct education programmes on democracy. “Voters need to know what good governance means and how this affects their lives,” she says. “They need to understand their rights as citizens and taxpayers, and we need to communicate this in accessible programmes.”
Fuziah says establishing local council elections and having public dialogues between constituents and local councillors would give people a chance to bring up issues.
Fuziah Other than improving communication with the grassroots, Fuziah says the party is also working on training more candidates and campaign managers in preparation for the next general election.
“We will run a candidate school as part of our training academy, focusing on training campaign managers and candidates. Hopefully, in a year’s time, we’ll have a pool of about 500 eligible candidates and managers that will run campaigns professionally,” she says.
Additionally, Lee says credible leaders must be groomed from among the grassroots. “If we can offer credible candidates from the community, it would be easier to win voters’ hearts,” he says.
Chua is dismissive of rumours of internal factions and of PKR needing internal reform. He says the public should be more concerned about ensuring a level playing field during elections, and about abuses that occur.
“Why should the public care whether PKR or Umno can overcome our organisational weaknesses and come up with better leaders? They should be more concerned about issues like whether Umno is abusing public money to win the elections.”
Chua says election rules should be fair and not disadvantage parties which do not have money or even grassroots support. “While I appreciate people criticising PKR and hoping we do better, public discourse should also focus on why we are allowing the ruling party to get away with abusing public resources election after election,” Chua says.
Lee (Source: parlimen.gov.my)Lee also dismisses talk of factions. “Reports put me in this section or that section, it’s all rubbish,” he says. “We are a democratic party and discuss things in an open and frank manner. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don’t; this is very common. We make decisions not based on which faction you are in, but based on merit.”
Whether or not there is any basis to the rumours of internal strife, PKR leaders acknowledge they have a difficult road ahead of them.
“As the [federal] opposition, we always have to do a lot of things at the same time,” says Chua. “It’s like the Malay saying, ‘Sambil menyelam, minum air.'”
Lee says the recent Hulu Selangor by-election demonstrates how corrupt the current administration has become. “This is the first time a prime minister has openly bribed voters by saying if you vote for us and we win, we will help you, otherwise you won’t get it … He didn’t only promise projects, but tied it to winning the elections. It is unprecedented,” says Lee.
Najib signing autographs on 23 April during the campaign trail in Hulu Selangor
Fuziah says it’s not just the BN that the PR is up against, but the entire civil service, federal resources, and government-controlled media. So with what the PR is facing from the BN, will PKR be matching the BN’s tactics in the next general election?
Chua notes that if the PR imitated the BN by dishing out money to win an election, this might solve the PR’s problems. “That’s not much of a problem for me as a PKR member. But in the public discourse, that’s dangerous,” he says.
Fuziah says she believes that PKR volunteers must still be taught to campaign correctly as the party fights for a more level playing field. “We will not play the BN at their game,” she says. “This is something I refuse to accept.”
But will the party’s efforts be sufficient to maintain or improve PKR’s performance going into the next general election? That is left to be seen. What is certain is that PKR has a choice, and the choice it makes will also eventually affect Malaysia’s political landscape.