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“Party of Hardship: The Evolution of Malaysia’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat” by James Chai


• The People’s Justice Party (PKR) may in many ways be synonymous with its larger-than-life leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who, although only president for six of the party’s twenty-five years, has always been its de facto leader and adviser. However, PKR is much more than only about Anwar, and this paper traces the evolution of the party independently of Anwar as a person.

• PKR’s evolution can be broken down into four main periods: 1998–2004 (formative), 2005–13 (golden era), 2014–18 (all-in for power), and 2019–22 (lessons on restraints). From 1998 to 2022, PKR tended to adopt a big-tent approach (internally and externally), ideological synthesis to find a middle ground, and a loose organization led by a charismatic personality at the top and self-organization at the grassroots.

• PKR was born out of a major crisis when Anwar, then deputy prime minister, was sacked in 1998 and subsequently jailed twice in the following two decades. For the most part, the party operated with its figurehead in jail, thus learning how to rely on coalition strengths, working with civil society, mass movements, and political parties to survive and win power.

• The party’s loose organization became beneficial when it partnered with parties that are ideological opposites such as DAP and PAS (as part of Pakatan Rakyat in 2008), and expanded party enfranchisement via a one-person-one-vote system. This also allowed PKR to adopt a middle-ground approach in policies such as hudud and the New Economic Policy (NEP).

• However, openness and loose organization led to factionalism within the party, resulting in large-scale defections during the 2009 Perak crisis, the 2014 Selangor menteri besar crisis, and the 2020 Sheraton Move. Without pushing its big-tent approach to the limit and without working with arch-enemy Mahathir Mohamad, PKR would not have emerged victorious in the first-ever change in government in 2018 and Anwar Ibrahim would not have been pardoned and freed. Notwithstanding that, it also led to a fractious coalition and a loss of trust in the leadership during Pakatan Harapan’s term in government (2018–20).

• The post-election Unity Government with Anwar Ibrahim as the tenth prime minister marks PKR’s first “real” governing experience, and this would not have been possible without PKR’s core identity operating in full gear.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/15, May 2024

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