AFTER the last general election delivered a hung verdict with no coalition winning a plurality of seats (for the first time in our nation’s history), the King exercised his royal wisdom to call upon all parties to form a national unity government headed by the leader of the coalition with the most seats.
It was an unprecedented request but a very sensible one.
After one full parliamentary term of turmoil and four prime ministers in five years with our economic, political and social systems battered by Covid-19, a weakening economy and a clumsy proclamation of emergency and instability – it was time for a national reset.
It was the right time to rebuild our nation after years of bruising political battles between the various parties competing for power and the rakyat being at the mercy of parlour games.
However, Perikatan Nasional was unwilling to accept the King’s call for a national unity government, and it was left to Pakatan Harapan, Barisan Nasional, Warisan, Gabungan Parti Sarawak and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah and others to come together and deliver on the King’s request.
When Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim took his oath as the 10th Prime Minister on Nov 24, I told myself it was a remarkable moment in our young nation’s history because a man who has been sacked as deputy prime minister, imprisoned twice, and struggled for almost one-third of his life is occupying the highest civilian office in the land.
It was a Malaysian moment because it reminded all Malaysians that we can achieve what we set out for ourselves if we put our minds and energy towards it.
However, the unity government also had its detractors. Many used the lyrics of a popular song by local artist Altimet to remind Pakatan that it had said it would not work with those who betrayed the people’s trust.
But, like all great political moments, it was born out of necessity and some degree of compromise.
Malaysia needed a government, and not all parties/coalitions were willing to participate.
Perikatan decided it wanted to be both an active Opposition and a government in waiting.
In this power contest, best evidenced by fiery speeches in Parliament, neither side was willing to back down. The unity government and Perikatan have been constantly calling out one another.
Matters have come to a head with the state elections for Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Penang, Selangor and Negri Sembilan.
The battle lines have been drawn.
Perikatan is facing a pro-incumbency wave in Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan. Pakatan is facing an anti-incumbency wave in Penang, Selangor and, to a lesser extent, in Negri Sembilan.
Pakatan and Barisan fight the state elections on a “unity ticket”. This has changed the political dynamic because it is a two-versus-one battle against Perikatan.
Perikatan hopes to tap into Malay-Muslim disenchantment and resentment to garner the lion’s share of their votes and be put over the top.
Many analysts undercounted Perikatan votes in the last general election and have made sustained attempts to avoid repeating the same mistake this time.
However, the demographic of each state is unique, and what works in the Malay belt may not necessarily work in urbanised states like Selangor and Penang.
Over the last couple of months, after speaking to many people and reading many comments on social media, I have concluded that we are furious. But why are we so angry?
Malaysians seems to be angry with the unity government because promises have not been kept, change has been slow, the economy is lacklustre and reforms have stalled.
Malaysians are asking: what is the government doing?
Alas, the party in power will always be at the receiving end of voter anger.
Recently, an American commentator remarked that Joe Biden is probably one of the most successful first-term presidents in recent memory, with many legislative wins, a booming economy, stellar job growth and foreign policy success by leading the efforts to punish Russia for the Ukrainian war but his approval rating is stuck in the mid-40s.
Modern politics rest on messaging – the better one’s story, the better one is judged. Biden, like the unity government, has been overly reactionary. Less time has been spent explaining to voters what their governments have done to improve livelihoods, and more time has been spent on whacking opponents.
I am reminded of another recent political event. When Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced snap polls on May 29, the consensus was that his party faced a drubbing.
His party, the Socialists, lost critical regional and municipal elections before the general election. The opposition Popular Party (PP) and its far-right ally Vox swept those polls.
In Spanish politics, there is typically never a second chance for a frontline leader – once he is out, he is gone from the mainstream for good. None of its PMs made a comeback. But Sanchez did better than expected and proved that he is a formidable opponent and a great tactician.
Despite the PP winning most seats, the Socialists increased their seats from the last election notwithstanding the palpable anger amongst Spanish voters before the election, with Sanchez labelled as a failed PM because he did not perform well enough.
However, during the general election, Sanchez reminded traditional centrist voters that PP would ally with Vox and, for the first time since Spain’s return to democracy in 1975, a far-right party would be in the federal government.
Sanchez also proved himself a pragmatic leader eschewing hard-left policies and dealing with bread-and-butter issues instead of making grand promises.
He reminded voters that he is earnest and presented them with a report card of his work to refresh their memory, and it worked well for him.
The unity government must learn from Sanchez. A good economy delivers good politics – a tried and tested maxim. Eschew grand promises and platitudes. Focus on the small issues that matter and improve lives.
However, as Malaysians, we too must be cautious about parties that over-promise and under-deliver. The traditional race and religion narrative must give way to a more progressive and balanced approach to governance with our constitutional structure respected and upheld.
But, at the same time, everyone who needs help will receive it. Doing the right thing should not become political fodder.
We must also be patient because, after five years of political musical chairs, we need a government with sufficient room to deliver on its promises. But that does not mean we do not hold it accountable – we do so rationally with data, facts and figures, not with diatribes on TikTok.
Also, when we react angrily, we make poor decisions. Malaysia has had enough of poor choices – let us not prolong it.
– The Star