Friday, August 1, 2008

Permatang Pauh by-election: Brutal battle ahead

Friday August 1, 2008 MYT 3:52:43 PM

Permatang Pauh by-election: Brutal battle ahead


BY MOST accounts Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is set to win handsomely in Permatang Pauh but with the sodomy accusation hanging over him like a dagger and his failure to engineer a mass defection, his plans to topple the government and become prime minister remain a dream

Nevertheless at a prayer session in his house late Thursday night, Anwar kept that dream alive telling die-hard supporters, “victory in Permatang Pauh is assured, after that we march to Putrajaya.”

Faced with imminent arrest over sodomy charges and his fragile Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition showing cracks, Anwar pre-empted his political enemies with the stunning move, "asking" his wife and PKR President Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail to vacate the Permatang Pauh seat for him to contest.

But with the situation as it is now, he will be fighting with his back to the wall, not only in the by-election but also to revive the momentum of his sterling March 8 comeback that is losing steam rapidly. When Anwar and Dr Wan Azizah made their announcement the only Pakatan Rakyat leader beside them was Cheras MP Tan Kok Wai who although a veteran DAP MP, is not a national leader like DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang or chairman Karpal Singh.

More significantly no PAS leaders were present especially when the entire PAS leadership was in the city the same day to discuss the future of the Umno-PAS “Malay unity” talks.

“Their absence is sickening,” said a senior PKR leader who requested anonymity. “What is the Pakatan without Anwar. Who brought them all the non-Muslim votes?”

With PAS and Umno in an “unholy embrace” the extent of PAS support for Anwar’s leadership of the opposition and his candidacy in the by-election, is being questioned.

Some PAS leaders are not only unhappy with Anwar’s “liberal and secular policies” but also his attempt to grab power, seeing it as dangerous moves that would dilute Malay political pre-eminence and consequently adversely affect the progress of Islam.

The Permatang Pauh move has nevertheless shaken the political establishment setting the stage for a brutal battle with few parallels.

“It will be like a presidential fight, brutal, door-to-door and no quarters asked and none given,” said lecturer Wong Chin Huat of the Monash University Malaysia campus.

“There has been nothing like this before, it is a battle for the future of Malaysia,” he said in an interview. “Both sides will roll out everything in their arsenal.”

For Anwar, the outcome will have a telling effect on his political future that really took off after he abandoned PAS to join Umno in 1982 and came under the protective wings of his former mentor turned nemesis Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

That same year Anwar contested and won in Permatang Pauh, a seat he subsequently held for 17 years until when after his 1998 sacking and arrest, it fell to his wife Dr Wan Azizah who held it until vacating it on Thursday.

An election which must be held within 60 days is more likely in later September - in the middle of the Ramadan fasting month and at a time when Muslims are expected to be kind to friends and foes, be humble and forgive each other and give alms to the poor.

The complication of a Ramadan by-election must have entered Anwar’s mind but the urgency of the current situation has taken priority.

“Facing an imminent sodomy charge, Anwar decided to take the political initiative and strike first and confound his political enemies,” said a senior aide to Anwar who also requested anonymity.

“Instead of sitting and waiting we decided to grab the bull by its horns,” he said. “It is a bold move and very risky but the rewards are high if we won.”

Whatever way, the sodomy charges and the by-election are intractably linked.

“Anwar has decided to go directly to the people, let the people decide on the sodomy issue whatever the outcome of the trial, if there is a trial at all,” said Wong. “He wants the people to decide. If he wins he will be vindicated in the eyes of the people.”

Anwar’s original plan was to engineer a mass defection and let Dr Wan Azizah become temporary Prime Minister, help her consolidate the country and thereafter contest a by-election and then lead the government.

But defection now seems out of the question and the sudden appearance of new sodomy accusations have derailed all his plans.

“He is in fast forward mode,” said the PKR leader. “He not only does not have the luxury of time because as time passes “safe” seats become “unsafe” and the risk of losing multiplies.

“Before events catch up with Anwar, he has decided to throw everything in one barrel and battle it out. He is hoping the tide turns for him and he can get back the March 8 momentum,” said the PKR leader.

The by-election also comes as Umno prepares for its December polls for top party posts and its national leaders will want to enter the home fray with a victory in Permatang Pauh behind them.

Umno leaders will also be fighting with their backs against the wall to convince the party rank and file that they have the courage and intelligence to fight Anwar and win.

An Umno victory would go a long way to destroy the aura and myth of invincibility that had always covered Anwar like a shawl.

Going by Umno traditions, it is the Deputy Umno President-cum-Deputy Prime Minister, in this case Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who will lead the battle for Umno in Permatang Pauh, giving the opportunity for sparks to fly.

Nothing is expected to be left out as both sides dreg the closets to score points and win.

Finally the upcoming by-election, the first since the March 8, would also be a barometer to gauge voter sentiments especially on the key question, whether the political changes that we witnessed in March are permanent or a flash in the pan.

Although 68% of the voters are Malays, Chinese and Indians form a significant minority and possibly be the deciding factor if the Malay vote is split between PKR and Umno.

An outside factor of unknown consequences is whether Barisan will field Ezam Mohd Nor, the former PKR rising star who had defected to Umno last month and is now travelling around the country helping Umno reconnect with the Malay grassroots.

“I am ready if selected,” Ezam said when contacted. “I am ready to battle him.”

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