Summary of Pakatan Harapan Meeting

Thanks to everyone who came for our first meeting of Semester two! We had a wide-ranging discussion about the recent leadership announcement by Pakatan Harapan (PH) and the current prospects for the impending general election.

Our presenter gave a brief overview of the contents of the announcement, including the breakdown of the leadership lineup, the first-100-days plan, and a short history of the Harapan coalition. We then moved to consider what effect Bersatu’s entrance into PH has had on its policy platform, and the potential outcomes for a Pakatan/BN victory in GE14. Finally we looked at the possibility that we may be facing a “lesser-evil” style choice, and looked at the example of France and the US to see what civil society and activist groups were doing around the elections.

The audience represented a range of viewpoints, although we all came to agreement that the PH coalition is deeply flawed and does not yet have a good chance of safely beating BN at GE14. The fact that the Najib administration still maintains control over the police, courts and Election Commission means that the opposition must command a large majority in order to even have a chance of winning.

Bersatu’s involvement in PH has visibly affected its ability to simultaneously engage with Malay and non-Malay voters. PH is now forced to simultaneously switch between reassuring Malay voters that their Bumiputera rights (and in some cases the welfare they need to survive) are not in danger, and also reassuring non-Malay voters that the pro-Malay elements of Bersatu are under control. For now, the combined political weight of the PH leadership and the desperation of civil opposition to get rid of Najib is holding the performance together. But this is not a long-term solution.

A choice between realpolitik and principle must be made eventually, and that choice can still be forced by any number of events even before GE14. A debate over seat allocations, and internal coup in UMNO, a media gaffe, any such event threatens to throw this question back into the open. It can be tempting now to simply declare that politicians are liars and are not to be trusted, but given that knowledge, what should the rakyat do to exploit the election for the collective good?

In the French and US elections recently, the voting population was faced with a choice between unpopular centrist and right-wing candidates (Clinton and Trump in the US, Macron and Le Pen in France). In both cases, significant movements grew in support of a left-wing protest candidate (Jean-Luc Melenchon in France, Bernie Sanders in the US), but these candidates did not make it to the final rounds of their elections. In response, millions of people refused to vote for either candidate; as many as 1/3 of French voters cast invalid ballots. From an electoral perspective it is easy to say that this “waste” of a vote improves chances for right-wing candidates, but those who refused to vote went on to operate in the movements that are fighting Macron’s and Trump’s regressive policies today.

Ultimately the position that individuals or groups take towards an electoral choice in a situation like this is strongly shaped by what they believe the role of extra-parliamentary movements to be. It is easy, in fact necessary, to always vote for the lesser evil if one believes that change will only come from government or Parliament. Audience members of this view argued for the importance of oppositional unity at all costs to unseat Najib, or that PH was doomed to lose this and all future elections until a progressive member of BN moves to deregulate the Election Commission.

Alternatively, the possibilities for action increase if we look to the power of extra-parliamentary movements. If we accept that a PH government will have difficulty implementing deep systemic change around corruption, racism, inequality etc, it follows that there must be a grassroots movement active outside the elections to hold the government of the day, PH or BN, to account. People can force that change whether the government likes it or not. Our belief is that we must build these movements and organisations quickly because they will be a necessary counterweight to conservative influences after GE14. Furthermore, holding a PH government to account in this way would be vital to preventing a BN return in subsequent elections.

If well-attended protests are organised by NGOs and unions in the lead up to the election, and especially if the government’s power bases in the working Malay community, FELDA and the civil service are brought into activity around their grievances, there will be immense pressure on BN to get out, and immense pressure on PH to promise gains for the working people in the next election. These protests can be around Bersih’s election demands, PH’s anti-kleptocracy rally, but even better if they are fresh initiatives from grassroots groups around popular issues like the GST, minimum wage, racism, union rights, Orang Asli rights etc, supported by larger groups. If these movements continue to be active after the elections, then the rakyat will be able to agitate for the promises made. It is only through this interplay between electoral promises and extra-electoral action that democracies progress.

Don’t forget you can view our statement on the PH leadership lineup here:
Or on Facebook here:
And we will be posting a recording of the talk here:

Hope to see you at the next Malaysiaku on Friday the 11th of August!

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