Pakatan Rakyat leaders announcing the party convention Oct 20, 2009.

Pakatan Rakyat leaders announcing the party convention Oct 20, 2009.

A party convention is usually cause to celebrate, but the Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) first congress today will be all business.

The one-day convention was hastily arranged to demonstrate the coalition’s unity after endless rounds of bickering marred its image earlier this year. About 1,500 delegates will attend.

The highlight will be the unveiling of a common policy framework to guide the three parties to speak with one voice. It is the first time the divergent opposition parties are coming out with a joint statement of policy.

PR- first convention

PR- first convention

The leaders hope this will give a more solid shape to the PR, which is currently awaiting government approval to become a formal coalition.

“It is a crucial meeting, and the first time that we will showcase ourselves as a credible, sustainable and cohesive body,” said PAS leader Dzulkefly Ahmad.

The PR has been on a roller-coaster ride since the 2008 general election, when it scored record wins. Its momentum seemed unstoppable until Sept 16 that year. That was when Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s self-imposed deadline to topple the Barisan Nasional (BN) federal government flopped disastrously.

The PR appeared to survive the fallout unscathed, but cracks soon began to appear. Frequent squabbles broke out between the three coalition partners —PKR, DAP and PAS. Their policy squabbles essentially revolved around one point: The extent to which Islamic norms should be part of governance.

Local council elections a hot topic

A hardline faction of PAS wanted Islamic laws to be introduced in states administered by the PR, while a rival faction preferred to focus on common ground such as corruption and racism.

The rift became so fractious that it led to a near collapse of PAS. Its spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat, who favours a moderate approach, called for the removal of “troublemakers”, but later became a target of calls to resign.

The PKR has seen rank-and-file leaders in ugly fights for positions. The DAP experiences fewer power tussles, but has issues with PAS.

All in all, the PR has started to lose some shine. A survey of 1,000 people last month by Vox Malaysia found that only 8 per cent said they trusted the PR more to govern, while 44 per cent chose the BN. But 48 per cent choose neither.

Their scepticism is natural as PAS and DAP have never managed to work together for long. They tried twice in the past, and failed twice. Thus, it is crucial the PR reassures voters it is here to stay.

Party leaders have talked up the common policy framework in the past few days. “I think you will be happy to read this final draft…It is a clear testament in terms of our commitment to forge a cohesive alliance,” Anwar said on Wednesday.

Dzulkefly told The Straits Times that the three parties have worked hard to find common ground.

They have agreed on a wide range of areas, including Malay rights, the economy, education, Islam, and governance.

But the tricky issue of the Islamic state, championed by PAS, is not among them. And in recent days, another issue has cropped up unexpectedly — the PR’s promise to hold elections to fill local council posts. At present, such posts are frequently used to reward party loyalists.

Opposition supporters have demanded that this be fulfilled, but the three parties appear to have been unable to come to a consensus. Details of the document are not available yet, but it is likely to skirt over these two issues and instead focus on what Dzulkefly describes as a “centrist position” agreed upon by all.

This is actually a formula that had worked for the BN for over 50 years. In fact, this centrist position sounds uncannily like Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s key performance indicators unveiled just this week, which also made pledges on governance, corruption and so on.

The PR has taken almost two years to reach this turning point, and some leaders acknowledge it has been a hard period of learning.

“Rejecting the excesses of Umo-BN is easy. Governing states and providing checks and balances at the federal Parliament is more challenging,” PKR rising star Nik Nazmi Ahmad wrote on his blog. He described the convention as a “new starting point to a new chapter”.

The PR is still a formidable force, and it reminded the BN of that just this week.

Najib’s maiden Budget came close to defeat on Tuesday when it was voted on in Parliament. It passed with a majority of just three votes, and only because Najib and another minister cast the winning votes at the last minute.

But the PR has to go beyond dramatic shows if it wants to be a government in waiting. If it presents a solid platform this weekend, it may finally find a strong footing to make that claim. — The Straits Times