PKR has the burden of history, it’s Umno’s true nemesis and suffers for that reputation.
Despite all the desertions and dissertations, PKR is the only party due to its ideology and membership make-up — in look and feel — which has the value proposition to compete with Umno.
The other Pakatan Rakyat parties?
DAP wants to shed its Chinese-only perception, and PAS is actively on the way to becoming a fully-integrated Islamic-principled party.
They need time to force some paradigm shifts and stay intact through that process to become what they desire.
But for now, it is PKR which fills that void, due to its history and development.
You have to move back in time to retrace this story, the story of PKR and to know what it was and is, what it always promises to become — and come short — and the common malaises which haunts it.
Somewhere in the vaults of the major media companies — from a time before Internet portals — various pictures of Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders celebrating their 1995 general election landslide victory sit. They are filed and stored, but not for reproduction in the present.
You will see a nervous but relieved Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The substantial losses of 1990 to the trio of Semangat 46-PAS-DAP and rebelling Parti Bersatu Sabah had died down. The economy was purring.
Nothing advertised the ‘times-are–a-changing’ better than having a Malay language graduate and Islamist firebrand rebranding himself as finance minister.
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will be found in that picture holding up Dr M’s hands and they would be smiling from ear to ear. Not far would be Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, and all the usual characters from the Umno family.
Umno was in its zenith, it was impregnable. The landslide victory vindicating the thinking that a race party is the answer for Malaysia. Everyone was content.
It was postulated that only Umno could end its own dream. And the script went exactly that way.
The Anwar dismissal in 1998 and subsequent protests and trials were monumental but not decisive. It was the diaspora of Umno grassroot leaders and members into what was not an Umno-clone which was.
The creation of Parti Keadilan with the intention of seeking justice for all and political change was unprecedented. A large number of Umno members rejected Umno. Their reasons, their allegiance to Anwar and even naïve think that the move would result in immediate change did not affect the cumulative effect of it.
A sea was crossed, for a population afraid of drowning in a water bucket.
The colossal loss of Malay votes in Election 1999 meant PAS was the biggest parliamentary winner after BN. It was important for the Umno strategists that Parti Keadilan ended up third behind the religionists and DAP.
Let’s get this out of the way. Keadilan as a party is not the fear for Umno. Keadilan as a concept is. There was never a practically multiracial party with a Malay spine since the days of Datuk Onn Jaafar. And that was enough to scare the pants off Umno.
Which is why Election 2004 — despite the landslide win — remained somewhat unsatisfying to Umno for it did not bury Keadilan — which was now PKR following its marriage with Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM).
Everywhere PKR — especially the ex-PRM candidates — was falling like bowling pins and the defeated crew quickly licked their wounds and turned their eyes to events in Permatang Pauh.
Party president Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was being run very close for what was to be their single parliamentary seat.
After several recounts, Azizah kept her seat in Dewan Rakyat.
PKR was to have a heart-beat until the next election.
In the 10 years of existence leading to Election 2008 PKR was plagued by problems. Of its Malayness isolating non-Malay issues.
Of leaders — who left the lap of luxury inside Umno and expecting a short spell in the desert — growing disappointed with a leadership which was struggling with its own teething problems.
Of its inspiration — Anwar — imprisoned for most of that time.
However, the ex-Umno faction gave the party reach to places like Dengkil and Bukit Semanggol and not just in Petaling Jaya and Johor Baharu. They were more than just the sentimental choice of unionists and NGOs — which PRM was unfortunately and unfairly stereotyped before merging with the less chic Keadilan dudes.
The party despite its lack of political wins was operating nationwide.
But the active political observer has to recollect that leading up to Election 2008 PKR had only one closely-won parliamentary seat to show, and lost the assembly contest in the Ijok by-election to a newbie candidate.
That is why the critique that PKR should have recruited better candidates for Election 2008 is hubristic if you have been rooting for change in Malaysia prior to 2008.
The idea of contesting with little financial support from a party with six wins in two general elections was not enticing enough to capable candidates.
Names had to be put on the ballot for all the parliamentary and assembly seats PKR negotiated with PAS and DAP, keeping to the promise of one on one contests against BN nationwide.
And in the future there will be other surprises in the party. PKR suffers more than DAP and PAS, because the two latter parties have been in the game longer as opposition parties, lived without political pork-barrel which comes with winning and are not inundated with those previously with the enemy.
That is why it is tough for PKR, but I feel they escaped the bigger body blow in 2004.
The concept of a multiracial party with substantial Malay presence will grow as fewer and fewer leaders in it would be ex-Umno men with living memories of a better life; joined by a generation of local graduates with less caution than their parents seeking a party to back their multicultural aspirations.
The challenge for PKR is to keep its general momentum through that transition.
They can’t counter the mainstream media attacks, costly branding exercises and the financial incentives BN relies on, but they have to sustain the broad belief in a multicultural Malaysia built on effective leadership not race leadership.
If PKR passes the present low-point then all roads will lead to Putrajaya eventually as mixed race-seats in the country hits past the critical mass line.
But politics is all year round even if elections are not. And as PKR deals with adolescence, trying to balance between better candidates and realpolitik maybe a few more people have to step forward.
They say in politics, half of it is in showing up.
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