Monday, April 19, 2021

Whither Amanah? After power comes survival

After its heyday as part of the federal government, the PAS splinter party may have ignored the writing on the wall.

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The move by an Amanah trio to switch allegiance to PKR has raised many questions, including about the future of Amanah itself, a party which was catapulted to federal power just three years after its inception.

Once part of the government, Amanah now faces an erosion of trust among its own members who have chosen to leave.

The latest episode of party-hopping within Pakatan Harapan (PH) has led to angry public exchanges between Amanah and PKR leaders, while social media channels have turned into battlegrounds.

It also shows how PH and its chairman, Anwar Ibrahim, have not been at the forefront to douse the flames.

At the time of writing, there has yet to be an official statement from PKR justifying its acceptance of the Amanah assemblymen. As partners in PH, it would seem only proper that PKR consult Amanah before accepting defecting members, in the spirit of camaraderie and friendship.

Once part of the government, Amanah now faces an erosion of trust among its own members who have chosen to leave.

But how does the entire episode affect Amanah?

Amanah was established by a group of former PAS leaders, known as G18, who lost the party elections in June 2015.

They quickly mobilised themselves, launching a new movement called “Gerakan Harapan Baharu” (Movement for New Hope) at the Bakri PAS division in Johor.

The plan was to ultimately form a new political party, to provide a platform for a “progressive” and “inclusive” Islamic party. These elements form the basis of the party, apart from the theme of “Rahmatan Lil ‘Alamin” (Mercy to the Worlds).

The movement soon took over an inactive party, the Malaysia Workers’ Party, rebranding it as Parti Amanah Negara which was launched Sept 16, 2015, on Malaysia Day.

A week later, it joined PKR and DAP to form PH. Bersatu later became a fourth component to face Barisan Nasional (BN) and PAS in the 2018 election.

Starting with a bang

In the two years after its inception, Amanah was to play a significant role in PH.

It won 11 federal seats and 33 state seats, a huge achievement for a new party. Amanah was also allocated three senatorships in the Dewan Negara.

Amanah president Mohamad Sabu (left) with Pakatan Harapan’s chairman at the time, Dr Mahathir Mohamad (centre), and PKR leader Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (right) at the launch of the coalition’s election manifesto in Shah Alam on March 8, 2018. While Amanah played a significant role during its time in government, internal fights and a lack of clear direction now threaten to pull it under. Photo: AFP

Amanah’s success was due to several factors: the right political coalition, the clamour for change to replace BN, as well as last-minute campaign strategies backed by Bersatu and its leader at the time, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

With Mahathir as prime minister, Amanah was given key positions in the Cabinet. Five of its MPs were appointed as ministers and five others, including a senator, were made deputy ministers. With only 11 seats in Parliament, these positions were seen as a huge gain for Amanah.

Indeed, Amanah’s share of the Cabinet was more than PAS’ in the current government.

Wasted opportunity?

Yet, during its time in government, Amanah failed to make use of opportunities that would have strengthened its political position. With leaders either too busy or still in shock over their gains, the need to strengthen the party was neglected.

As a ruling component, Amanah saw a boost in membership. The new members included former Umno members as well as those joining a political party for the first time.

But very few from PAS joined its ranks, partly due to the conflict between the two parties.

During its time in government, Amanah failed to make use of opportunities that would have strengthened its political position.

The influx of new members led to a diversity of ideas in Amanah. But this was a new environment never before managed by those in positions of leadership. Before it could digest its new membership composition, it was time to hold elections.

The ensuing polls of 2019 which saw a scramble for top positions served as a turning point in the understanding of issues facing Amanah today.

The party polls saw a collision of groups at the division and state levels as well as its youth and women’s wings, although the national leadership was spared a similar battle. As a result, those who were defeated decided to take a recess. Some even left the party.

The scars from those elections remain fresh even today, inhibiting to some extent Amanah’s strength as a party. Pioneer activists who had been there from the start were no longer active following their defeat.

Although it spent 22 months in power, its leaders were busy adjusting to their roles in the government at the cost of the party’s own strength.

From its position as a ruling party, Amanah is now back in the opposition. It can no longer ride on the strength of its place in the government, and its support has waned alongside its resources.

Mahathir or Anwar?

The Sheraton Move which precipitated the downfall of the PH government had a profound impact on Amanah as it did on other parties.

The political turmoil brought its leaders face to face with two sets of dilemma in choosing their political stance, ultimately causing members to lose confidence in the party’s leadership.

The first dilemma was choosing between Mahathir and Anwar. This poser saw the rise of two main groups.

Those who felt that Mahathir should lead the effort to restore the people’s mandate pointed to his influence, saying it should not be dismissed. There were efforts to return Mahathir as prime minister again based on this argument.

Mahathir’s supporters were convinced of his ability as well as his organisational strength and discipline. After all, he had made several difficult decisions as head of PH, some with a heavy heart.

The Sheraton Move which precipitated the downfall of the PH government had a profound impact on Amanah.

But in its bid to outweigh the combined strength of BN and Perikatan Nasional (PN), PH could not find a majority even with MPs from Mahathir’s Pejuang bloc or Warisan in Sabah. This led to the idea of a “grand coalition”, which received a cool response from PKR.

But there were also those in Amanah who admired Anwar and who accused Mahathir of not fulfilling his promise to transfer power to the PKR leader. They questioned those who continued rallying behind Mahathir, attributing their stand to their indebtedness to the former prime minister for their Cabinet positions.

This second group viewed Mahathir as one who no longer commanded influence and who had become a liability to PH. They felt that PH should emerge from Mahathir’s shadow and focus on Anwar if the coalition was to see its power restored.

It is these opposing groups in Amanah that have been on a collision course.

Amanah MPs after their audiences with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in February 2020 following the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government. Photo: Facebook

The idea of a “grand coalition” was not thoroughly debated – just some leaders thinking aloud, nothing that could amount to a motion that would bind the party to a course of action.

Some claimed that Amanah lacked consultation at both the grassroots and leadership levels. There were members who were in the dark about the party’s direction and its stance on the “Anwar vs Mahathir” debate.

Frustrated by party polls and internal clashes, and fuelled by a desire to push for Mahathir’s leadership, members began to lose faith in the party while still confused about its true direction.

This was at the root of the move by five assemblymen – two from Selangor and three from Johor – to join PKR.

Strategy

The second dilemma had to do with Amanah’s election strategy.

Amanah, as a splinter of PAS, shares with it to a certain extent a common set of values. The difference is that Amanah is seen as more open and softer in its political stance.

It has largely contested in areas seen as part of the struggle for Malay parliamentary seats. This clamour for the Malay vote bank also involves Umno, PAS, Bersatu and now Pejuang, the bloc led by Mahathir.

But the 11 parliamentary seats won by Amanah are mixed constituencies, with a significant non-Malay electorate. In the Malay areas of these seats, Amanah was trounced. This gives rise to the question of whether Amanah can compete with other Malay parties at the next polls.

Herein lies the dilemma: while mixed seats can ensure victory, most of those contested by Amanah are predominantly Malay areas.

Amanah still lags behind other Malay parties in the battle for influence in the community.

While mixed seats can ensure victory, most of those contested by Amanah are predominantly Malay areas.

This scenario has yet to take into account the 52 seats contested by Bersatu in the general election. Which party from PH would contest these seats? Even if they are distributed among Amanah and PKR, the question remains whether they can deliver these seats to PH when the polls are held.

This leads back to the matter of Amanah’s strategy to retain its 11 federal and 33 state seats in the next election. Failure to defend these seats would reflect the party’s inability to manage the issues discussed above. The next general election will pose a huge challenge for Amanah to draw up a winning formula.

What future for Amanah?

Its declining popularity points to a gloomy future for Amanah, which must arrest this trend immediately.

The party’s eroding support and the trust between members and leaders must be nurtured again, failing which it must prepare to face an exodus similar to that seen in Selangor and Johor.

Seen from another perspective, it shows the weakness of Amanah’s leadership in dealing with internal crises.

For instance, Mohamad Sabu, the Amanah president, has failed to calm long-drawn tensions. He has not been at the forefront to play the role of peacemaker between opposing groups in his party.

Likewise, the recent Amanah convention showed no initiative by the president to chart a fresh party direction.

Amanah is sinking in a pile of issues. Its leaders are not at the front line to champion the people’s grievances.

Najib Razak and Umno leaders seem to be more vocal in highlighting these topics despite being part of the government.

It would come as no surprise if Amanah’s brand lacks prominence in the minds of voters. It will be a challenge, therefore, for Amanah to survive after the next polls.

GE15 may not be contested with the same vigour as the previous election. Kleptocrats, thieves, bandits and GST are no longer the issues.

Instead, the Covid-19 pandemic and other frustrations will affect the voting pattern.

Is Amanah ready to face the fluid political dynamics?

Beyond coalitions, Amanah must be able to survive on its own. Its internal strength and unity need to be rebuilt.

In short, can Amanah survive?

Hisommudin Bakar has closely followed Amanah since its inception in 2015. He is executive director of Ilham Centre, a research firm that has been studying Malaysian elections and politics since 2006. This article is written exclusively for MalaysiaNow.

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