Power over principle? Anwar’s biggest gamble yet

If the govt delivers, Anwar’s deft move in partnering Zahid may be a forerunner to a truly multicultural and multiracial politics

HE GOT it, finally. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim became the prime minister (PM) of Malaysia, a position that eluded him for the longest time. But did he trade principles for power to step into the nation’s top political post?

Just as how two-time PM Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad features in national politics, Anwar has been part of Malaysia’s story from his days as a rebellious student leader.

The Nov 19, 2022 general election, the 15th for the nation (GE15), returned a hung Parliament. There were no clear winners. Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) emerged as the coalition with the largest number of seats, but still a distance away from an outright majority in the Parliament of 222 lawmakers.

In the heat of negotiations, at one point, it seemed it was game over for Anwar. At a press conference, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) chief Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg announced that the coalition was backing Perikatan Nasional (PN) led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yasin. At that moment, it was suggested that Barisan Nasional (BN) was part of the equation. But the twist and turn of the making of the Malaysian government continued when Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi clarified that BN had yet to make a decision. In the end, the BN chairman and Umno president opted to throw his lot with PH.

PH embracing archnemesis BN was no easy swallow for both sides. If you had mooted the idea before the polls, many would have laughed, some hysterically even. They would remind you of Zahid’s constant and consistent “No Anwar, no DAP” sloganeering. The PH side had vilified Zahid, who is facing a string of corruption-related charges in court, as the epitome of all that’s wrong in the country.

Yet, it happened.

“Move not unless you see an advantage,” says Sun Tzu, the Chinese military general and philosopher traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War.

So, why did Anwar make that move? Did he and his team of advisors undertake a thorough risk-reward analysis before throwing their lot with the once perceived devil?

The numbers work out fine. A PH-BN combo brings 112 seats to the table, just barely tilting the balance, but enough to give you the keys to Putrajaya. GE15 ended with PH winning 82 seats and BN 30. PH seats came from DAP (40), PKR (31), Parti Amanah Negara (8), United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation [Upko] (2) and allied partner The Malaysian United Democratic Alliance [Muda] (1). Umno won 26 seats, contributing the lion’s share of BN win. The others came from MCA (2), MIC (1) and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah [PBRS] (1).

Some argue that Anwar should have been a little more patient and tried to form a government without BN. It could even be a minority government, but a government nonetheless. Canada is a prime example where a minority government is running the nation. They seem to be doing fine, even having a team in the World Cup 2022 (though that has probably nothing to do with the Cabinet). While you can sing aloud about holding on to principles, the reality on the ground could be chaotic. With the pressing economic condition we are now going through, it may not serve the nation well.

So, the kiss and make up with Zahid may not have been a bad idea after all.

Zahid was handsomely rewarded for bringing BN to the fold of the so-called unity government. He was appointed as deputy PM, along with Datuk Sri Fadillah Yusof from GPS, representing the Borneo bloc. When the initial Cabinet of 28 ministers was announced, Umno emerged as a big winner, taking up six ministries. That’s two more than DAP which won a lot more seats than Umno.

For DAP, the rumbling on the ground was audible. For all the heavy lifting, DAP is made to look like a junior partner in the coalition of coalitions.

DAP secretary general Anthony Loke tried to calm the nerves of his party members and supporters. In a press conference after the swearing in of the ministers, he explained: “The decision was made based on the consequences. If we do not form the government, the alternative will be the other will form the government. This is a new political model.”

Up till then, DAP seems to have played its card well. It made a major sacrifice in not pressing forward for a big presence in the Cabinet, and keeping its cool. In two meetings of all its executive members and newly elected MPs before Anwar went to Istana, Loke said they were unanimous in throwing their unconditional support to empower Anwar to form the government. They did not make demands for so many ministerships or other appointments. Admirable. But it was strategic as well. They saw the Malay backlash in the past when they were part of the government post-GE14. We can debate its merit, but the backlash was real. However, DAP received the lion’s share when Anwar announced the list of deputy ministers, cornering six slots, including finance. This shoud calm the nerves of disgruntled members.

But how PH members will react in the months to come will depend on how the government performs.

If it works, Anwar’s deft move in partnering Zahid may be a forerunner to a truly multicultural and multiracial politics, unlike the BN’s paternalistic style with race guardians playing the arbiter role.

A poor performance, on the other hand, will see the PH coalition parties losing support from their rank and file, and a wounded DAP. If it turns out to be a miscalculation, it may well be Anwar’s political death knell. – pic TMR File 

Habhajan Singh is the corporate editor at The Malaysian Reserve.

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition