Bersih, a 2008 version of Barisan Alternatif?

2 December 2007
New Straits Times

The story of the Bersih coalition is ultimately about the opposition regrouping to challenge the Barisan Nasional in the coming polls. Will it be enough to convince voters? ABDUL RAZAK AHMAD writes.

THERE was eagerness among many in the audience who turned up at the Pas training centre in Gombak, Kuala Lumpur, on Monday night.
The event was the launching and screening of the Bersih coalition’s VCD on its Nov 10 illegal rally. The audience was, to a degree, multiracial, though mostly Malay — presumably Pas supporters and members.
In attendance were Pas deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa and Bersih committee members, including DAP central executive committee member Ronnie Liu and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) vice-president Sivarasa Rasiah.
The screening was followed by promises of more activities in the months ahead. Also launched were two Bersih merchandise — Bersih coffee and Bersih mineral water.
There is little doubt that the movers behind Bersih are working to gear up their campaign, which will be intensifying in the months ahead leading to the general election.
Much of the publicity and debate on Bersih — a coalition of opposition parties, non-governmental organisations and other groups — has been on its campaign.
There is, however, another possible explanation of what this is really about: a framework paving the way for electoral co-operation in the coming polls between Pas and DAP, with PKR acting as go-between.
Where the Barisan Nasional (BN) faced the opposition pact of Barisan Alternatif (BA) in the 1999 general election, as things now stand, it looks likely that in the coming polls it will be Bersih that will provide the common thread running in each and every Pas, DAP and PKR candidate’s campaign. So is Bersih going to be the 2008 version of Barisan Alternatif?
“Because of our differences with the DAP, something like the BA is not going to be feasible. Bersih will be our common platform, one which everyone in all the parties can agree on,” says a Pas insider.
The party’s Nasharuddin doesn’t go that far.
“Bersih was set up specifically to call for fair elections, but after this we can also go on to talk on wider subjects such as democracy in the country in general. We foresee that the horizon could be broader.”
In any case, Nasharuddin says that morale in Pas has now been boosted, with Bersih receiving many requests for programmes and activities.
Liu, though, says Bersih will not serve the same role as the BA.
“People who support us generally want to see unity in the opposition: unity not necessarily in the form of a formal electoral coalition, but among opposition parties.
“Of course, something like the BA is something they hope for. Present circumstances do not permit this to happen, but at least now with Bersih, the opposition parties are united.
“Maybe in future we can talk about merging into a formal coalition, but the minimum expectation is that there must be unity.”
Bersih was set up in 2005, a year after a general election which saw the BN sweeping over 90 per cent of seats in parliament.
Since then, Pas, on its part, has done a lot of quiet work to prepare its rank and file for Bersih and the co-operation that entails with all its components, including the DAP.
For the past two years, Pas president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang has focused on the campaign to “restore democracy” and talked about “going to the streets to demand change” in his address at Pas’ annual assemblies.
This year’s Pas muktamar saw him talking about a 100,000-strong demonstration to demand for “change” — a reference to Bersih’s Nov 10 rally. The question now is how big an impact this will all have in the coming election results.
Bersih isn’t the first opposition and NGO-driven special concern coalition.
Earlier ones include the Gagasan Demokrasi Rakyat or Coalition for People’s Democracy and the Majlis Gerakan Keadilan Rakyat Malaysia, both formed in 1998 after the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and linked by the then Parti Keadilan Nasional.
It all built up to an outright electoral arrangement: the BA for the 1999 general election. The DAP pulled out two years later following the insistence of Pas in setting up an Islamic state, and the BA fell apart.
There were also two earlier opposition electoral alliances — the Muslim-based Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah and the multireligious Gagasan Rakyat for the 1990 general election, bridged by Semangat 46. Both did not survive to the next polls in 1995.
These on-and-off opposition alliances — in 1990 but not in 1995, in 1999 but not in 2004 — amount to what Umno Terengganu information chief Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek describes as the “yo-yo” effect between Pas and the DAP.
“It underscores their Catch 22 predicament. If they go to the election without a common front, they give little hope to people that they can form a government, but each time they do, the pact breaks up,” says Shabery.
“The kind of co-operation the opposition must forge must be truly substantial, one that can iron out differences in terms of ideology, or else it’s not going to get them far aside from marginal gains,” says Associate Prof Dr Mohammad Agus Yusoff, head of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s political science department.
It remains to be seen whether the opposition will remain under the loose platform of Bersih or a more formal arrangement to come in the months ahead.
An actual electoral alliance, in any case, should be the preferred option.
As things stand, numerous opposition party figures have taken great pains to explain that they can co-operate even without a formal pact, and that there will be no three-cornered fights.
The DAP and Pas, they say, won’t overlap as each party caters to a different voter segment. The PKR, on its part, can serve as a bridge between the two, they claim.
If so, then the speed at which the parties are able to work out and announce a full agreement on seat distribution will be crucial. It’s the most telling and easily observable sign of how close the parties really are to each other.
With the clock ticking ever closer to the polls, such an announcement, for some reason, has yet to materialise