KUALA LUMPUR, April 4 — Just a year after the March 8 general election gave birth to Malaysia’s most viable opposition alliance ever, the Pakatan Rakyat stands on the verge of being wiped out.
The survival of the three-party alliance, brought together under the leadership of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, is at stake when voters in three constituencies go to the polls in three separate by-elections on Tuesday.
“The possibility of losing 3-0 to Barisan Nasional is now very real,” a DAP leader told Weekend Xtra.
Just a few months ago, the opposition alliance — comprising Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, PAS and DAP — were looking invincible. In January, its candidate had trounced the BN man in a separate by-election in Kuala Terengganu, in a second straight win over BN.
Both BN, and Umno in particular, looked weak and in trouble.
The Pakatan alliance appeared poised to take power in Malaysia.
But a bold move by Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who was sworn in as Malaysia’s sixth Prime Minister yesterday, changed the entire equation.
Najib masterminded a power grab in Perak state which led to the collapse of the PR government.
The heavily-criticised move sparked a constitutional crisis but it has also led to a more resurgent Umno and BN, both of whom are brimming with a new level of confidence unseen in the months following their poor March 8 electoral showing.
The current campaign for the Bukit Gantang federal seat in Perak has no real significance on the balance of power in the state assembly itself.
But the by-election has been touted by the PR alliance as a referendum on the power grab by BN.
A win there for Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin, the PR leader of its deposed Perak government, will be argued as a vote against the BN action.
But the widespread public anger seen in the early days of the power grab, achieved through defections, does not seem to have given Nizar much of an advantage in the campaign.
Bukit Gantang voters appear to be suffering from political fatigue, and the results on Election Day remain unpredictable.
The seat had fallen vacant due to the death of its PAS Member of Parliament.
The PAS man had won the seat by a small majority last year in a victory largely attributed to a number of protest votes from a public unhappy with the BN candidate fielded in the contest.
Before last year, Bukit Gantang had always been a BN stronghold, and with a popular local candidate in the running this time, the seat could well return to the ruling coalition.
The PR alliance faces a similar uphill battle in Bukit Selambau, a state constituency in Kedah, which is barely 45 minutes by road from Bukit Gantang.
The Bukit Selambau seat fell vacant under controversial circumstances. The PKR assemblyman for Bukit Selambau was forced to quit as a state executive councillor as well as his state seat because of bigamy allegations against him.
His resignation touched off a scramble among members of the Indian community to become a PR candidate for the by-election. In Malaysia’s race-based political structure, the seat, which has a significant number of Indian voters, is being contested by a large number of Indian candidates.
A record 15 candidates are vying for the Bukit Selambau seat, but the only two real contenders are from PR and BN. Still, the large field of candidates, many of whom are disgruntled PR men, will give the BN man an advantage.
Just like in Bukit Gantang, the outcome of the Bukit Selambau vote will have no impact on the Kedah state government.
But BN will be hoping to score a psychological win.
The third by-election that will take place on Tuesday is in the small rural constituency of Batang Ai in Sarawak.
The more-than-8,000 voters in this remote outpost are being asked to choose a new representative following the death of their BN state assemblyman.
A few months ago, Anwar had identified Sarawak as a major frontline state for the opposition alliance.
This was based on the fact that a majority of voters in Peninsular Malaysia had backed the three PR parties in last year’s general election — with only voters in Sabah and Sarawak giving BN enough support for the coalition to remain in power.
But of the three PR parties, only the DAP has some significant presence in Sarawak because of the backing of the urban Chinese.
Neither the PKR nor PAS has any strong support in the state. For the Batang Ai vote, PKR is in a straight fight with BN.
With very little local support and its own resources stretched by the fact that the alliance is contesting in three by-elections, PR faces an uphill battle in Batang Ai.
Barring a major upset, BN looks set to clinch the Sarawak seat.
Ultimately, the PR alliance needs to win at least one of the three by-elections to keep its flagging morale up.
A 3-0 wipeout could result in the opposition alliance being subjected to unprecedented pressure from BN.
BN leaders are hoping to apply enough pressure on PR members in the next few months to engineer more defections and the downfall of more PR governments.
If that comes to pass, it will mean the end of Anwar’s dream of leading his PR alliance to power