By Deborah Loh
DIFFERENT ideologies notwithstanding, Pakatan Rakyat partners PAS, DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) will once again test their brand name as a coalition in the Kuala Terengganu by-election on 17 Jan.
Having proven their ability to work together in the Permatang Pauh by-election in August 2008, the alliance now faces a slightly different test of their mettle.
For one, the Kuala Terengganu by-election is PAS's battle. And lately, cracks within the Pakatan Rakyat over issues such as the implementation of hudud law have become more apparent. Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's silence has not helped clarify PKR's stand on the matter to non-Malay, non-Muslim Malaysian voters, who form about 11% of the seat's electorate.
Secondly, it has been 10 months since the Pakatan Rakyat took over the state governments in four states — Penang, Selangor, Perak and Kedah, with PAS retaining Kelantan — and their performance has come under increasing scrutiny. There have been some hiccups, including the 50% housing quota for bumiputera in Kedah, the arrests of two Perak exco members for alleged corruption, and dissatisfaction with Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim's handling of a pig farm project.
Thirdly, the Pakatan Rakyat has had to deal with public scepticism over its much ballyhooed but failed attempt to take over the federal government on 16 Sept 2008.
Though the coalition will undoubtedly put on a united front in Kuala Terengganu, it will be interesting to see whether these underlying issues make any difference to its campaign.
Everything can be explained
PKR vice-president Azmin Ali (right) believes that voters will understand and support the Pakatan Rakyat if the answers to these problems are well articulated.
He also plays down the hudud gaffe and says that PAS's stand is neither new nor alarming.
"PAS has made it clear that hudud is their party ideology, but when it comes to our collective politics, we fight together on common goals like democracy, fighting corruption and human rights. If we can articulate this well to the Malay electorate, they will understand," Azmin tells The Nut Graph.
He also believes PKR can explain why the Pakatan Rakyat is still not in federal power. "We'll say that we have tried our best, that there was harassment and intimidation of the MPs who were to cross over; that our attempts to move a motion in Parliament and to meet the prime minister were rejected."
PKR strategist Saifuddin Nasution says while the Pakatan Rakyat state governments are still on a learning curve, they have not suffered any major scandal that could be used against them.
"There's nothing major that can shake the stability of our five state governments, whereas the Barisan Nasional (BN) has scandals like the Eurocopter purchase, the high-speed broadband project and others."
He adds that the Pakatan Rakyat has taken steps to form a clear structure for achieving consensus between the three parties, including weekly meetings between the heads of each party.
"We're actually more united now," PKR strategist Saifuddin (left) says.
It appears that PKR's role in the campaign may mainly involve explanations for their perceived failures. If PAS is not convinced with Azmin's arguments, it might limit PKR's one-to-one contact with voters in Kuala Terengganu and utilise the party's orators to draw crowds at the ceramah instead.
PAS deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa says operation meetings between the three parties are under way to plan their campaign strategy. "KT is the most urban seat in Terengganu, so PKR, which has the image of being more appealing to urban Malays, will be helping us in this aspect."
Nasharuddin also expects hudud law to be a non-issue. "We'll explain to non-Muslim voters what PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang has said, that it will only be applicable for Muslims."
DAP permanent election committee secretary Liew Chin Tong believes PAS will want to maximise its chances by utilising PKR and the DAP fully, because the stakes in this by-election are high.
"This by-election comes right before Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak takes over the Umno presidency and the prime minister's post [after March 2009]. Imagine the psychological consequences to the BN if they lost."
The three Pakatan Rakyat parties have only really campaigned together in recent elections, starting with Ijok, Selangor (28 April 2007), the March 2008 general election, and the Permatang Pauh by-election (26 Aug 2008).
Prior, by-elections were fought largely alone by the contesting party or with one other opposition partner. Anwar, who was released from prison on 2 Sept 2004 after serving six years for corruption, only made brief appearances in several by-elections until Ijok.
He spoke at ceramahs for the PAS candidate in the Pengkalan Pasir, Kelantan by-election on 6 Dec 2005. It was a closely fought race narrowly won by Umno by a 134-vote margin, leaving PAS with a single-seat majority in the Kelantan legislative assembly.
PAS and PKR paired up to campaign in the Batu Talam, Pahang by-election (28 Jan 2007), but ended up boycotting it to protest against alleged bias by the Election Commission. The Umno candidate won by a 5,857-majority against an independent candidate.
The DAP and PKR, meanwhile, campaigned together for the first time in the Chinese-majority state seat of Machap, Malacca (12 April 2007). For this seat, the DAP focused on Chinese Malaysian voters while relying on PKR to reach the Malay Malaysian electorate.
Though the seat went to the MCA by a 4,081 majority, the Machap by-election was seen as the first step in future PKR-DAP cooperation. It highlighted the two parties' similar ideologies — DAP's Malaysian Malaysia, and the PKR's non-racial, needs-based approach to economic and welfare policies.
All for one
Ijok marked the strongest cooperation between PAS, PKR and DAP, and showed the coalition's appeal in racially-mixed areas. Malay Malaysians comprised about 50% of the electorate in Ijok, while Indian Malaysians were around 28% and Chinese Malaysians 20%.
Although the BN candidate from MIC won Ijok in the by-election, Chinese Malaysian support for the BN was said to have dipped by 10%, thanks to keris-waving at the previous year's Umno Youth general assembly, among other national issues played up by the opposition. In the 2008 general election 11 months later, Ijok went to PKR.
Anwar ran the show in the Permatang Pauh by-election on 26 Aug 2008, and bettered his wife, PKR president Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail's performance in the general election five months earlier. It was a stunning political comeback for the former deputy prime minister, no less because he was facing fresh sodomy allegations brought against him by a former aide.
"Permatang Pauh saw the best cooperation ever between the PKR, PAS and DAP," Azmin says. "PAS focused its machinery in the Malay state seats of Permatang Pasir and Penanti, while the DAP took Seberang Jaya and the Chinese areas. Now in Kuala Terengganu, PAS will take the lead and PKR will play a complementary role."
Whether this formula will work in Kuala Terengganu remains to be seen. With the BN expected to pull out all the stops to retain the seat, the Pakatan Rakyat will hope that voters will overlook the differences within their coalition.