Looking beyond political personalities

The departure of two iconic Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leaders in close succession has dealt Malaysia's opposition alliance a severe blow. However, it also provides the coalition with an introspective opportunity to ask itself why personalities should be so central to its political agenda.

Undoubtedly, the jailing of the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim deprives the opposition of a leader whose politically-savvy skills did much to foster strategic unity in the multiracial and multi-religious grouping. In the death of Parti Islam seMalaysia (PAS) spiritual leader Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, PR has lost a man whose ability to reach out to the non-Muslim components of the coalition, along with his personal piety and integrity, gave the Islamic party a national footprint far larger than its mass base in conservative Malay areas. Indeed, it is doubtful that PR would have posed a genuine electoral challenge to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition without the presence of these two leaders and several other veterans, including the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party's (DAP) Mr Lim Kit Siang. Each drew on his credibility within his own party to preserve the overall tactical coherence of the opposition.

However, it is problematic when a coalition which aims to rule Malaysia depends so heavily on personalities. In the final analysis, unifying figures are less important than unifying ideals and aspirations. Indeed, without a common vision, there is the danger that the death or incapacitation of a leader could be followed by the emergence of others incapable of staying the opposition course.

A case in point is the presence of intransigent hardliners in the PAS, whose insistence on implementing Islamic criminal laws sets them on a potential collision course with the staunchly secular raison d'etre of the DAP. The PR's eventual collapse, or at least its descent into dissension and decline, is not inconceivable in the circumstances. Its reformist agenda, which has provided a platform for the convergence and articulation of political dissent, would be undermined by ideological incompatibility coming to the political fore.

If the PR is to offer a viable - and stabilising - political option for the country, it must display a capacity for negotiation and compromise among its component parties, based on the appeal of a common political agenda. It must work to dispel the notion that it is an alliance of convenience whose only unifying goal is the capture of power. Unless it does so, the alliance will fail in its professed aim of offering Malaysian voters a credible alternative to the ruling coalition which has governed the country for decades. Ideally, voters should be given genuine options, which go beyond simply voting against the status quo.