Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Umno-PAS talks rock Pakatan Rakyat

JULY 22 — PAS, DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat — the opposition Pakatan Rakyat — are at loggerheads now. Their problem — the secret talks between PAS and Umno.

After weeks of going on about the need to have unity talks between the two Malay parties, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi dropped a bombshell with the disclosure of secret meetings with top PAS leaders three times since the March 8 general election.

His announcement prompted PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang to admit such talks took place with the Prime Minister, revealing that he along with a few other leaders including his deputy Nasharuddin Mat Isa were in the meetings. Left out of the talks, PAS revered ulama' and spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat is very upset. For him, being friendly with Umno is like sleeping with the enemy.

The Kelantan Menteri Besar has warned party leaders that attempts for a muzakarah (dialogue) with Umno on Islam and Malay unity would only split the party and has demanded an end to the talks. He is not alone as his grudging ally DAP chairman Karpal Singh was irate that they were not informed of the meetings.

He said PAS leaders should not meet their Umno counterparts because they had been cheated when they were in the Barisan Nasional in 1970s. "There shouldn't be any confusion among parties under the Pakatan Rakyat and any action must be taken openly," Karpal said.

In a more sober tone, DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, who is unperturbed with the talks, said: "If Pakatan Rakyat (People's Coalition) can be disturbed because of one meeting, then it is completely not a coalition."

"Meeting the PM is not unusual. It's what they are discussing that is more important. I've also met the PM before but we met to discuss issues relating to the rights of the people of Penang.

"I'm sure that he's met with others. Our emphasis is that when we talk about issues, it should be issues that contribute towards Malaysian unity," the Penang chief minister told the press yesterday.

Lim's message is clear; his preference is national unity and not any race or religious agenda. For this, the DAP is sometimes seen as a thorn in the flesh of the Malay-dominated opposition parties.

But even for a Malay-controlled multiracial party like PKR, the restlessness is felt about the unity talks. In a very guarded statement, PKR leaders expressed solidarity with PAS but their tone betrays solid unity.

PKR deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali said: "I'm confident that Hadi will not backtrack on his promises," referring to the PAS leader's assurance to remain loyal to the loose opposition coalition.

PAS grassroots tend to share Nik Aziz's view. Kelantan PAS Youth chief Mohd Zaki Ibrahim believes it was an agenda to drag the party into Umno's internal problems. "PAS has proposed the muzakarah many times but were ignored by Umno. Why Umno rejected the proposal for the muzakarah when it was strong before?"

The PAS grassroots have also asked the leadership to consider having the muzakarah with their partners first especially the DAP, which continues to oppose the formation of an Islamic state in Malaysia.

Why are top PAS leaders so eager to talk to Umno?

To some, it's just a message to de facto opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. To many PAS leaders, Anwar's popularity and his multiracial and open market agenda is slowly reducing PAS to a junior partner status.

PAS took full advantage of Anwar's sacking from the government and subsequent jailing in 1998 but after the former deputy prime minister was released a few years ago, his recharged PKR made significant gains in the recent general election albeit on the back of PAS's network of volunteers and supporters campaigning through the country.

The fear within PAS is that Anwar's PKR, with the DAP, could have taken over the whole country, with the Islamist party reduced to controlling the Malay heartlands only. Even then, some PAS insiders believe Perlis and Terengganu may even be in the hands of PKR if Umno leaders jumped into Anwar's camp.

In a more conspiratorial tone, a PAS insider said: "Why only Anwar and PKR can persuade Umno and BN members to join them? PAS too can provide an alternative if Umno MPs want to switch side."

Pakatan Rakyat will not split. It's not even a real, registered coalition with any institutional capacity. It's here by accident after the March 8 political tsunami. To make it really effective, the leaders have to sit down and resolve their differences and, on certain points, to agree to disagree amicably.

That is not going to happen in a hurry as Anwar faces fresh sodomy accusations and is in a hurry to fulfil his prediction of forming the federal government by Malaysia Day through defections from the ruling coalition, something which his allies are not comfortable with as they come to grips with ruling more states and work out their political and philosophical differences.

"It's better to have a Pakatan Rakyat muzakarah to trash out differences and to come up with a basic agreement for the sake of the people. After all we're more inclusive and we fight for the rights of every citizen regardless of race and religion," said PKR Youth vice-chief Amir Sari.

Even DAP veteran leader Lim Kit Siang questioned the whole Malay unity talks. Instead of questioning PAS, the articulate opposition leader throws the question to Abdullah.

"Why the pre-eminent issue bothering the Prime Minister is still that of Malay unity rather than Malaysian unity. Has he forgotten another of his pledges to be the Prime Minister of all Malaysians and not just for any race?"

The last time Umno offered unity talks with PAS was seven years ago when then-Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was losing popularity with the Malays, and PAS had gained a number of significant Umno seats in the 1999 general election, including capturing Terengganu.

The talks did not materialise but the rejuvenated Umno under Abdullah won more than 90 per cent of parliamentary seats in the 2004 general election. And PAS lost Terengganu.