Thursday, March 04, 2010

PKR's resignations

WITHIN a month, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has been rocked with the resignations of high-profile party leaders, including three federal lawmakers. Bayan Baru Member of Parliament (MP) Datuk Seri Zahrain Mohamed Hashim quit in early February 2010, followed by Nibong Tebal MP Tan Tee Beng a fortnight later.

It might have been easy to dismiss their resignations as a by-product of local issues, since both MPs had been publicly attacking Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng. But then on 3 March, a third lawmaker, Mohsin Fadzli Samsuri of Bagan Serai, Perak, quit, citing PKR's handling of the "Allah" controversy.

These resignations are dramatic, since they alter the parliamentary composition of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). PKR is now no longer the biggest parliamentary opposition party. The DAP is. What could this do to the power balance within the PR? If the convention is that the opposition leader is chosen from the biggest opposition party, would the PR then need to replace Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim with a DAP MP?

Tan Tee Beng (left) and Zahrain
Is the PR's parliamentary presence weakened in any way? More importantly, what does this say about PKR? Are these resignations a signal that the party is in turmoil, as some headlines suggest? Or are they merely the latest in the young party's series of growing pains?

On the other hand, could the resignations not be a good thing for the party to clarify its internal leadership issues?

Non-performing quitters

"Yes and no," says PKR's Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh, when asked if the resignations could actually be a silver lining. "On one hand, it will certainly make my job as party election director easier, since I am responsible for monitoring the KPIs (key performance indicators) of all our MPs."

According to Fuziah, the KPIs monitored are:

Parliamentary performance: Do PKR's MPs participate actively in debates, ask questions in their constituencies' interest, or ask questions of BN MPs and ministers?

Constituency work: Are their service centres accessible and functional? Have they identified local community stakeholders? Do they network and perform regular outreach?

Communications strategies: Do urban MPs make full use of the new media? And do rural MPs have other strategies, such as holding regular ceramah?

"I would say that the three quitters failed in meeting these KPIs," Fuziah tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview. She adds that these KPIs are not meant to penalise MPs, but to help the party ensure their seats remain winnable in the next elections.

PR disaster?

On the other hand, Fuziah says this string of high-profile resignations could damage public perception in the PR, and specifically in PKR. "We must brace ourselves, because this is exactly what the BN wants," she says.

Associate Professor Dr Joseph Liow of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University agrees. "To be fair to PKR, Umno has itself been identifying 'weak links' in the PKR chain, playing up their sense of insecurity or ambition, and picking them off selectively," he says in an e-mail interview with The Nut Graph.

The question is, why is PKR the party that seems the most insecure or vulnerable among the PR?

"PKR absorbed too many ex-Umno people who retained a selfish and outmoded understanding of politics. These defections actually took too long to happen," says Dr Ooi Kee Beng of Singapore-based International School of Southeast Asian Studies.

He tells The Nut Graph via e-mail that it would have been much healthier for PKR if these people had shown their lack of staying power at an earlier stage.

"But because of Anwar's initial concentration on getting crossovers from the BN, the consolidation of the PKR and the PR that should have followed their electoral success did not take place properly," he says.

Ooi's reasoning is that these resignations are actually a natural cleaning-up process for PKR. After all, it is a relatively new party. And given how quickly it rose to become Malaysia's largest opposition party, not all of its leaders would have been up to the job.

"Sooner or later, these defectors were bound to run afoul of what the party stands for," he explains.

Even if this was true, would these resignations unbalance the PR's internal power relations? Political scientist Dr Mavis Puthucheary doesn't think so. "Even if it is the biggest opposition party now, the DAP cannot assume the leading role in PR, because the coalition needs to remain multiracial," she tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.

Liow (Pic courtesy of Joseph
"The DAP might be multiracial in philosophy, but it has no significant Malay [Malaysian] membership to qualify as truly multiracial," she explains. And so, she says, PKR will still be crucial in forming the bridge between the DAP and PAS.

Liow agrees. "I don't think there will be a major reshuffle at the moment," he says. "Anwar was [chosen as] de facto head of the opposition because he is Anwar, not because he is from the party with the largest number, or formerly largest number, of parliamentary seats."

Precarious PKR

All three academics concur that PKR needs to manage this recent crisis well if the PR is to have a fighting chance in the next elections. All three allude to Anwar's "distractions" and inability to steward the opposition coalition well. Liow says internal discipline is really the deeper issue in PKR that remains unsolved. Ooi says the party needs "courage to cut away dead wood, and pick good people even if [they currently] do not have so-called grassroots support".

To PKR's credit, Fuziah says the party introduced a training academy in October 2009 focusing on capacity building of the party's leadership at all levels. "So far, we have covered half the country, and we have already identified potential leaders and candidates," she says.

"In 2008, we did not have much of a choice in fielding candidates, but I am confident the next time we will have a better pool of candidates."

Puthucheary, however, points out the PR's overall inability to come up with a convincing common platform as a key issue here, a weakness the BN is happy to capitalise on.

"After the March 2008 elections, there was hope that the country was moving away from racial politics, but the reverse has actually taken place," she says. "Umno has done whatever it can to scare and divide people along racial lines, and it seems to be working."

And so Puthucheary says if the PR cannot get its act together, then the public is going to ask if there is any real choice between the BN and the PR.

courtesy of Nut Graph

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