Malaysia: People's Alliance ready to topple government?

There have been dramatic developments in Malaysia since the ruling National Front (BN) government had its majority in parliament reduced sharply in the March 8 general elections. Opposition parties, which won five out of 13 state governments, formed a new People's Alliance (PR) on April 1. At this stage, the PR comprises the Justice Party (PKR), the Islamic Party (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Police disrupted a large opposition rally on April 14 to mark the end of the government's five year ban on opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim participating in politics. Anwar claimed at the rally he now has enough defections from government MPs to form a federal government, but would not make the move until he increases his majority.

Green Left Weekly's Peter Boyle interviewed S. Arutchelvan, the secretary general of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) on April 18. The PSM won a state and federal seat in the recent election, running under the logo of the Justice Party because the government refused the PSM registration as a political party — branding it a "threat to national security".

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You were present at the police disrupted April 14 opposition rally. Can you describe what happened?

It was a huge rally, drawing easily more than 20,000. Around 10.20pm, about 20 police personnel moved towards the rostrum while Anwar was still speaking. Anwar spoke to the police, told the crowd to be calm and then he announced that he was ending his speech. He thanked everyone. The crowd then dispersed peacefully.

At 6.30am the next morning, the police went to serve 111 notices to four leaders of PR. This is sheer harassment and an infringement of the freedom of assembly.

@question = Are Anwar's claims of having enough government defections to allow the PR to form government true?

Anwar seems very confident. There definitely seems to be such a situation, especially in parties belonging to the BN government in East Malaysia.

There is definitely a chance of people defecting to the opposition, but at the same time I don't think BN is going let it happen so easily. On the sidelines, former PM Mohamed Mahathir is trying his best to get rid of PM Abdullah Badawi and replace him to safeguard his own interests.

I think, if the defections from BN are very large and Anwar gets the full backing of the kings [Malaysia has several kings who take turns as head of state] and the army/police, he would be able to take government.

If PR wins government, Anwar would lead it and form a multi-party government. I am also confident that the people will fight back if there is an attempt to clamp down on the PR.

Such a government would be popular and would bring some immediate reforms — like abolishing the repressive Internal Security Act (ISA) and allow the freedom of the media and register parties like the PSM.

The civil society movement would expect the repeal of all the dracanion laws and demand reforms to the police force. Investors will look for a less corrupt government. The common people would expect fuel prices and inflation to go down, as well as lessening Malaysia's dependency on migrant labour.

Based on the interest of people in reading alternative news, the street discussions and popular sentiment, people are really happy at the recent course of developments and would fight the BN if there is a clear direction from the political parties. The opposition leaders are trying to hold down the uprising of the common people as they don't want the BN to use it as an excuse to clamp down.

This is where we disagree with them. We think the people have to be prepared to defend the election gains and go further.

What special challenges to you see this posing for the PSM?

There is the question of getting rid of BN first, as BN is seen as the primary enemy. However experiences in Indonesia and Philippines warn of the limits of this approach.

At this stage, we too have to be careful not to isolate ourselves from the general sentiment for change. We are using the situation now to build the party, to increase membership, sell more newspapers and, most importantly, having a clear understanding of the process and not getting carried away.

We are also trying to build people's power in the areas we organise. For the record, [newly elected PSM deputy] Dr Nasir Hashim was the first state assembly member in the state of Selangor to organise a demonstration [against the building of a hyper market] straight after the elections.

We also face a critical task of being the watchdog of the new PR. This is the expectation of most civil rights groups. They see the PSM as a very principled and consistent party, in spite of our small numbers.

You are quoted in the media comparing Anwar to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, due to Anwar's call to redistribute petrodollars to the people. Can you expand on this?

There are huge differences between Anwar and Chavez. I believe Chavez is a building socialism, whereas Anwar is merely trying to give a human face to capitalism. He believes that fighting corruption and emphasising good governance will solve the problem.

We in the PSM feel that capitalism is beyond repair. But we support strongly Anwar in fighting the government economic program and policies that discriminate against non-Malays. This can help us build the conditions for a class struggle politics.

Today we are a not one nation in Malaysia — there is no nationhood. We are divided so strongly by race and religion. Many feel that we can only build socialism once we resolve the national question. Today we see some opportunity to make progress on this front.

For the PSM, the most important task is to stay relevant to the majority of the working class and to do hard work. Sheer rhetoric is not going to win our battle.

The opposition manifesto calls for civil rights, free education and health care. And Anwar has said that we are going to for pay it using Petronas [the state-owned oil company] money. Never has Anwar said that this is what Venezuela is doing, but the PSM never fails to mention in all our public talks that we should learn from Venezuela's revolution that it is possible.

Anwar's speech at the April 14 rally said the PR is not merely trying to take over from BN, but trying to overhaul and change the entire political system, and we want the power to the people and not a few rich people.

This sounds really good, but it is too early to tell if it is more than words. We know that the only way out of capitalism is socialism.