Are the problems exaggerated?
PARTI Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leaders maintain that all is generally well in the party, and that recent skirmishes are but “normal” for a party that has grown rapidly. It might be a hard message to sell to a sceptical public impatient to see Pakatan Rakyat (PR) deliver.
For one, PR, which comprises PKR, PAS and DAP, has been slow to rein in its politicians whose independent streaks threaten to destabilise the alliance. And for how long can PKR leaders hide behind blaming the media for spinning their woes?
Indeed, problems are inevitable in any large party with members from different backgrounds and who have personal ambitions. But given the high public expectations, it doesn’t sell when leaders persistently deflect the issue by blaming the media or by drawing comparisons with other parties to justify infighting as normal.
Wan AzizahIn this context, it’s perhaps refreshing to hear PKR president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail‘s admission that there are problems. “The frustrations which have been expressed by some colleagues within the party and by some supporters are valid and I remain open to engaging all parties,” she said in a press statement on 29 Oct.
Yet, this doesn’t answer any of the questions that the media have raised and even PR-supportive bloggers are wondering about. Is de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim too big for the party? Is he playing favourites in his inner circle? Is he lacking decisiveness? Is he oblivious to problems festering at the grassroots?
Politics please, not politicking
Recall the story of Aminah Abdullah, who quit PKR and stood as an independent in the Penanti by-election. Her infamous audio recording of alleged bribery by PKR to withdraw from the contest was actually a deeper lament that the party she loved had changed after an influx of new upstarts. She also complained that abuses in the party reported to Anwar and Wan Azizah were ignored.
It’s illustrative of how leaders of huge organisations can lose sight of issues on the ground which may seem small at first. Add to that the personal ambitions and politics of those in the party structure, and it is not unlikely that such grouses are all too easily dismissed by those higher up.
The recent squabble about who should lead Sabah PKR is another example of the same combination of problems that Aminah bemoaned: a relatively new party member with personal ambitions, a grassroots divided on who they want to lead them, and the central peninsula-based leadership allegedly not in tune with the local Sabah sentiment.
Supreme council and political bureau member Datuk Zaid Ibrahim‘s six-month leave and secretary-general Datuk Salehuddin Hashim‘s supposed resignation, which he has denied, also speak of something, even if they’re not on the record with the media about their true feelings.
Zaid is well-known as a maverick. By going to Sabah against Anwar’s wishes to meet then PKR vice-president Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan in his own capacity, Zaid has shown that he is not one to bow to internal politicking. Salehuddin, too, is said to have little stomach for political play and is only interested in getting things done. Kitingan quit his vice-president’s post over disagreement with the Sabah leadership and so did another leader, Christina Liew, from her supreme council’s post.
As for the newest problem of Port Klang assemblyperson Badrul Hisham Abdullah quitting the party to become a BN-friendly independent, he is but the latest in a string of poorly-chosen PKR candidates. Even Anwar admitted that the party could have done better when vetting candidates for the 2008 general election.
What’s really going on?
Party vice-president R Sivarasa tells The Nut Graph that PKR’s “sneezes are turned into pneumonia” when none of the issues are as bad as they are made out to be. On the matter of Zaid’s leave of absence, Sivarasa says there’s nothing wrong with that as he is only focusing on work to formalise the PR coalition.
On Zaid’s unilateral visit to Sabah, party deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali says Anwar only felt that such a visit was untimely and could be misconstrued given that Zaid was invited by one faction, which was Kitingan’s. At the time, there was also a revolt against vice-president Azmin Ali‘s leadership of Sabah PKR. “Nothing went wrong with Zaid’s visit, so now that’s a past matter,” Syed Husin tells The Nut Graph.
And to allegations that Anwar only listens to Azmin‘s advice, Syed Husin says the two have had a long working relationship from their Umno days. “Anwar does not always let Azmin off in meetings. I’ve seen Anwar come down hard on Azmin,” he says.
Things can always be explained to some degree. But they are still symptomatic of ailments in the party that the leadership needs to rectify.
Party workers who request anonymity say that some still find Anwar indecisive or too occupied with larger problems to act swiftly on details. Others say he listens but not enough. And for others, his personality is so dominant that those with criticism do not dare to speak up. At the same time, those with ambitions are keen to impress him, complicating the efforts of others who are more concerned about the party’s struggle.
Democracy vs the individual
Leaders whom The Nut Graph spoke to admit the need for more consultation. Syed Husin says while communication among the leadership is good, “top-down” consultation is lacking. “We need to consult the grassroots more,” he concedes.
Syed Husin“Leaders should also voice what they feel. They should criticise constructively in meetings instead of keeping ill feelings in their heart and talking to the media,” he adds.
From a newcomer’s perspective, former MCA vice-president and health minister Datuk Chua Jui Meng observes that the leadership could be more hands-on in listening to grassroots’ concerns.
“PKR just became credible one year ago, so of course there are growing pains. But the leadership, and this goes for me too, could be even more sensitive to the grassroots,” says Chua, who has been appointed to the party’s supreme council and political bureau.
Communications director Jonson Chong believes that “a more critical-thinking leadership” can ensure that decisions at that level are made after thorough consultation. “More professionals and thinkers in the party will also help us correct our weaknesses,” he adds.
The leadership problems may centre around Anwar to some extent. As one who holds the party together, can he juggle party work with his sodomy trial? Are his personal ambitions for the prime minister’s post causing him to become too big for the party? As a leader whom many try to impress, can he distinguish between those with personal agendas from those who can genuinely build the party?
These elements make PKR no different from the politicking in other political parties. Whatever Anwar’s failings may be, perhaps the saving grace is that PKR is at least democratising itself to give members more say in the party’s leadership. Democracy is never a perfect mechanism, but hopefully in democracy, there will be checks and balances.