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Deadlock in PH as Rafizi rejects 'big tent' despite polls data on Malay support

Recent surveys show that Malay support for the opposition coalition is 'at the lowest'.

5 minute read
An election worker puts up Pakatan Harapan flags near a handful of PKR flags at a juntction in Jalan Tanjung Kling ahead of the Melaka polls last November.
An election worker puts up Pakatan Harapan flags near a handful of PKR flags at a juntction in Jalan Tanjung Kling ahead of the Melaka polls last November.

A series of negotiations on the upcoming general election involving senior leaders from Pakatan Harapan (PH) appears to have ended in stalemate, with PKR's Rafizi Ramli locking horns with coalition partners over the "big tent" idea on the back of recent polls showing "negligible support" from Malay voters, MalaysiaNow has learnt.

It is understood that, as a result, the coalition has no choice but to try for more time.

Leaders were told, among others, to highlight problems such as high inflation and the expected annual floods in the hope of quashing any move to dissolve Parliament this year. 

At least two leaders involved in a recent PH retreat spoke to MalaysiaNow on how Rafizi had dismissed any suggestion of PH forming a big tent with rival parties to defeat the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN). 

"Rafizi has rejected any attempt at discussing an extension of the big tent to include parties like Bersatu, despite different opinion polls suggesting that the former PH party still commands huge support among the Malays who will not vote for Umno," a senior source from Amanah told MalaysiaNow, speaking about a recent retreat attended by PH leaders to discuss the 15th general election (GE15) which must be called by the middle of next year.

The big tent first mooted by PH leaders refers to an electoral strategy to cooperate with non-PH parties, with the main goal of averting the full-blown return of BN to federal power.

It is thought that in order to achieve this, they must avoid multi-cornered clashes in constituencies where only one-to-one contests could defeat BN.

The call for a big tent was renewed in the aftermath of the Melaka and Johor state elections, where the crucial Malay vote – which had until 2018 eluded PH parties – had gone to BN and Bersatu. 

The majority of post-electoral analyses on the Melaka and Johor polls agreed that Bersatu had eaten into the opposition Malay votes, leading to PKR's wipeout in both states.

The casualties were PKR and Amanah, whose candidates largely lost the problematic Malay-dominated multiracial seats, in contrast to DAP which won handsomely in safe seats dominated by the ethnic Chinese vote bank.

In the aftermath of the elections, some PH leaders broke ranks with their parties' official stance to keep PN out of the big tent.

They included Amanah deputy president Salahuddin Ayub, who urged fellow opposition leaders to include Bersatu and PAS in their discussions.

In recent months, however, leaders in DAP and Amanah have been more careful about responding to speculation on working with PN – in particular Bersatu, the party they blame for the Sheraton Move which led to the collapse of the PH government in 2020.

DAP secretary-general Anthony Loke said that the big tent was only for the opposition, and therefore could not include PN because it was a part of the current governing coalition.

"This has left some room for negotiations with PN, especially Bersatu, because it has the unique role of being an opposition party and a sworn enemy of Umno, while at the same time a major component of the federal government led by an Umno prime minister," said a source aware of discussions on the topic in recent days.

The big tent was among the top issues discussed by PH leaders at a recent retreat in Port Dickson.

"At the heart of the meeting was the benefit of working with Bersatu to secure the Malay votes," said an MP who attended one of the meetings.

According to one source, several think tanks tasked with conducting research on voter sentiments towards PH were also invited to present their findings at the retreat.

"They laid out data from separate surveys, confirming what we feared the most: that Malay support for PH is at the lowest."

It is understood that, among others, the surveys found that PH would not get more than 15% of Malay votes at the next general election. 

The Malay swing

If the surveys are right, the writing may be on the wall for PH at the next election in the form of a defeat caused by the ever elusive Malay votes.

In 2018, Bersatu's Malay appeal was said to have caused a tiny but very critical 5% swing of votes from some of the most hardcore Umno vote banks, especially in rural and Felda settlements, delivering BN its shock defeat and ejecting it after more than six decades in power.

But for any chance of a similar repeat of history, PH negotiators must first deal with a small but potentially harmful hurdle in the way of a winning formula.

An MP from Amanah told MalaysiaNow that Rafizi's stubbornness and "know-it-all" approach were being increasingly felt as a problem. 

"With Rafizi tasked with representing PKR in negotiations, coming to a consensus will be a rough ride for us," said the Amanah MP, adding that many still recalled Rafizi's role in the break-up of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition soon after the 2013 polls.

Rafizi was the "strategic director" who masterminded the Kajang Move in 2014, a disastrous plan which precipitated the break-up of the PR coalition which then included PAS.

This was followed by the conviction of party chief Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy charges and his subsequent ejection from Parliament. 

The Amanah man also claimed there had been a "serious communications breakdown" between Rafizi and a "very senior Amanah leader", but declined to give details. 

The big tent is one of several issues in which Rafizi is accused of trying to bulldoze his views through.

Rafizi is also bent on introducing a new logo for PH, in a move to distance it from the previous logo used when Bersatu was part of the coalition, the source said.

"This is despite the fact that many feel the logo is just a tiny problem. The bigger problem is public perception, which is going to cost us dearly," the source added.

Meanwhile, whether or not the rain pours down – a possibility cited by those resisting polls this year – other factors remain which could cause a stir in the PH camp. 

Muhyiddin's speech on Sunday, where he named Umno as PN's main enemy, is already a cause for concern.

Seasoned observer Ahmad Atory Hussain, who has studied Malay politics for decades, said Muhyiddin's target was obvious: Umno members and the fence-sitting Malay electorate.

"Based on Muhyiddin's experience in spearheading the Sheraton Move, he will likely get the support of Umno members, including those ministers who lean towards Bersatu, in addition to fence-sitters who have long waited to support a party other than BN," he told MalaysiaNow.

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