Corrected on 15 Aug 2008 at 2.50pm
DE FACTO opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s day of reckoning is rapidly approaching. After months of promises and political posturing, he is finally moving forward on his promises of leading the Pakatan Rakyat to power to form what he claims will be a more just and equitable government.
But first he has a potentially difficult hurdle to clear: he has to win the Permatang Pauh by-election on 26 Aug 2008 against the might of the well-oiled Barisan Nasional (BN) election machinery.
Anything less than a thumping win for Anwar with an increased majority risks raising unsettling questions, namely on whether the tide of voter dissatisfaction that the opposition parties rode on to victory during the 8 March 2008 general election is ebbing.
By all accounts, the 61-year-old former deputy prime minister is expected to win in the Malay majority constituency of 58,459 voters, which he represented for four terms from 1982 to 1999.
After he was sacked from government in 1998, his wife, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail took over from him, winning in the 1999, 2004 and 2008 elections. Wan Azizah resigned the seat and her position as opposition leader on 31 July 2008 to pave the way for Anwar’s return to Parliament. Nomination day is set for 16 Aug.
Permatang Pauh is Anwar’s home ground, and the BN is clearly the underdog here, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak admitted at the launching of the Permatang Pauh BN election machinery on 13 Aug.
Realistically, BN may be satisfied if its candidate, two-term Seberang Jaya state assemblyman Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah, manages to dent Anwar’s popularity by reducing his winning majority (in the 8 March elections, Wan Azizah won by 13,338 votes, a huge jump from her skimpy majority of only 590 in the 2004 elections).
Arif, a local who is fluent in Mandarin and Hokkien, is a popular figure in Permatang Pauh, especially with the Chinese community. The 52-year-old’s selection may help BN reach out to the constituency’s non-Malay voters who abandoned the coalition the last time around.
Still, Anwar must find a way to counter the BN and secure a morale-boosting win here if he is to be an effective thorn in Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s side.
Anwar, who led the opposition parties to a thumping win at the last general election, is the glue that has kept the Pakatan Rakyat — comprising PKR, DAP and Pas — together. But he needs to get into parliament and take on the mantle of opposition leader if he is to proceed with the coalition’s reform agenda.
A formidable challenger
Political analyst Prof Noraini Othman of the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas) says: “Anwar is the one who really has the ability to negotiate and bring the Pakatan Rakyat together in agreement. He is the de facto leader of the opposition, but it really hangs on him standing for the by-election and winning to take on the role properly.”
Being a Member of Parliament will add weight to Anwar’s criticism of the government, says Ibrahim Suffian, an analyst with the Merdeka Centre.
“Anwar will be a formidable challenger in Parliament to the government. It will be another platform for him to criticise the government as well as to propose new things,” he says.
Ibrahim believes the by-election is important in more ways than one. The voters in Permatang Pauh could use the ballot box to voice their dissatisfaction with Abdullah’s administration and its lack of reforms. “After so many years under the BN, it is an opportunity for the opposition to use the by-election to explain what they are offering and how objective they would be in running the country,” he says in a phone interview.
DAP advisor Lim Kit Siang also believes this by-election is critical, not just for Anwar, PKR or Pakatan Rakyat but for the future of democracy in Malaysia.
“As I see it, the question is not whether Anwar can win, but whether he can win with a bigger majority. It will signify, for one, a confirmation and ratification of the 8 March political tsunami. It will be a clear message for the last half of the year that the PM has not learnt the lessons [of the political tsunami, and] about the people’s deepest hopes and aspirations for democratic change.”
It’s been a bumpy ride for Anwar, whose meteoric rise within Umno was matched by his catastrophic fall from grace. From being the anointed successor of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to his sacking, trial and conviction on sodomy and corruption charges, and then on to his subsequent rehabilitation as a bona fide opposition leader — it has been quite a decade for Anwar (see timeline below).
Waging a holy war
Now, just as he is poised to make a triumphant return to elected office, Anwar once again faces the looming shadow of a protracted court battle. Charged with sodomy on 7 Aug 2008, Anwar is out on personal bond and has stepped up his campaign to push his agenda forward with nightly ceramahs.
And as always, this fiery orator uses the stand to play to the masses, promising a better life under Pakatan Rakyat rule, and accusing the Abdullah administration of trying to demonise him with the latest sodomy charge.
Umno Wanita deputy chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil has vowed to wage a jihad against Anwar’s candidacy (File pix)This is something the BN, and Umno in particular, is trying to counter. In launching the BN Wanita Permatang Pauh by-election machinery on 12 Aug 2008, Wanita Umno deputy chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil declared the upcoming battle a holy war, and echoed views that this by-election is critical not just for BN “but also for the whole country and its people.”
Attempts to get comments from Umno information chief Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, Umno secretary-general Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, and Gerakan acting president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon were unsuccessful at the time of writing.
Message of hope
It is clear that at stake is not just another parliamentary seat, but the very future of Anwar and possibly of the country. Anwar has repeatedly claimed that the Pakatan Rakyat will be ready to form the government come 16 Sept, with BN MPs in Sabah, Sarawak and the peninsula expected to cross over. Though this is the same tune he has been whistling since the 8 March elections, it is a threat the present administration appears to be taking seriously.
In a phone interview, Noraini says: “Anwar would be a fiery, ferocious opposition leader in Parliament. You don’t know what damage he can do to the government and Umno in particular between now and December, when the Umno general assembly takes place.
“If he wins, it will really have an impact on the government and Umno, vis-a-vis the transition plan for the party’s leadership. But if he loses, that has great implications on the kind of democratisation that some of us think has been opening up, namely the path to what is ultimately a two-party system.”
PKR deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali believes that Anwar can entice enough BN MPs to cross overPKR deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali is optimistic about the change Anwar’s election to parliament would bring, and says all the talk of the Pakatan Rakyat forming the next Federal Government soon is not a mere pipe dream.
“It (a PR government) has positive implications for democracy. It is good for Malaysia; good for governance as there will be better checks and balances and, consequently, less corruption; and good for the economy because investors will have more confidence in the government,” he tells The Nut Graph.
Pakatan Rakyat presently has 81 out of 222 seats in Parliament, and would need at least 31 MPs to cross over to form a shaky but simple majority.
But Syed Husin denies that the Pakatan Rakyat government would be too fragile.
“Once BN loses power, they (the various component parties) will splinter. They are held together by power and corruption. Once they lose power, there’s nothing to entice them to stay within the fold,” he points out.
Syed Husin adds that Anwar has already reached an understanding with a number of MPs in the BN who are willing to move. But how many will actually make the jump is open to question, as a lot will depend on how persuasive Anwar is in courting them.
In the final analysis, Anwar is like an actor, skilled at playing to the gallery. He struts and frets his hour upon the stage, making promises and pelting his enemies with threats that have all the weight of his conviction, but little else so far.
But it works — the audience cheer him on: they want to believe his message of hope. The 26 Aug by-election will decide if he can move on to a grander stage.