Thursday, 28 August 2008 08:52
This by-election was all about Anwar Ibrahim and whether or not he could generate the momentum for his push on Putrajaya. Whilst the posters in Permatang Pauh stressed his federal ambitions, he knew he needed to win big in order to revitalise his campaign.
By KARIM RASLAN/ MySinchew
Anwar Ibrahim's rehabilitation – and the future of Malaysian politics – has been decided by the voters of Permatang Pauh, and when I visited the constituency over the weekend I observed many other important themes. Arriving on Saturday evening I headed straight for the ceramahs in the constituency's east. Wet, in the dark and rushing to venues amidst the crush of activists, it was hard to get a sense of this sprawling area opposite Penang island.
When I retraced my steps the next day I got a better impression of Permatang Pauh's geography and its relevance for much of Malaysia. It is bisected by the all-important North-South highway. To its west is the multiracial township of Seberang Jaya - a typical suburban community with a mall, four-storey shophouses dotted with kopitiams and organised boulevards.
To the east are predominantly Malay kampungs amongst expansive rice-fields, leading to Bukit Mertajam on the fringes, where tower blocks mark the constituency's edge. This geography reflects a trend that emerged from the March 8th results. On the peninsula's populous west coast, the Pakatan did better in multiracial constituencies and less so in the majority Malay constituencies where Barisan (and Umno) still prevailed.
"Sitting MPs won't jump unless they're confident that they're backing a winner."
However, in the case of Permatang Pauh there is an interesting irony which holds the key for Umno and Barisan's eventual recovery. On March 8th, Pakatan won the two majority Malay state seats of Penanti and Permatang Pasir whilst the multiracial Seberang Jaya state seat was retained by the Barisan's Arif Shah. A similar trend can be seen in the Pandan parliamentary seat in Selangor where Transport Minister and MCA aspirant Ong Tee Keat survived the tsunami whilst the two Barisan state assemblymen fell to the Pakatan.
That the Barisan and Umno were able to hold onto Seberang Jaya amidst the political turmoil earlier in the year shows that all is not lost for the party of Merdeka. If the Barisan wants to win back multiracial Malaysia they must adopt more candidates with deep local roots, committed to constituency work and able to work across racial and religious differences.
This by-election was all about Anwar Ibrahim and whether or not he could generate the momentum for his push on Putrajaya. Whilst the posters in Permatang Pauh stressed his federal ambitions, he knew he needed to win big in order to revitalise his campaign. The thumping victory was an endorsement for a man whose travails have dominated national politics for three decades. Sitting MPs won't jump unless they're confident that they're backing a winner.
Watching Anwar deliver his speech in Kubang Semang on Saturday night was an eye-opener. After thousands sat patiently in the rain as Ustaz Harun Din and Azmin Ali warmed up the crowd, Anwar was ribald, witty yet serious. He joked about the various strip-searches he'd endured over the years before explaining his position on the NEP and Lim Guan Eng's record as Chief Minister of Penang, all in front of a predominantly Malay crowd.
Tragically there's no one in Umno who can match his intelligence and drive, although his attacks on Khairy Jamaluddin suggests he recognizes ambition. But once again the civil liberties agenda comes to the forefront: Umno won't recoup its credibility until it adopts the reform agenda. Invoking the force of law and institutions of state underline Umno's pathetic condition. Its self-obsession with its own internal polls and uncertain relations with its coalition partners stand in stark contrast to the mounting confidence and focus of the Pakatan. Umno leaders still mistakenly see national politics as a sideshow to the Umno polls.
Finally, driving across Permatang Pauh revealed PAS' overwhelming strength. At every ceramah they were the backbone to the Pakatan's strategy. The Ulama's willingness to lend their moral authority to Anwar in his time of need will inevitably lead to a subtle reordering of the power structure within the Pakatan, an alliance of near-equals. Nik Aziz's visit sent major signals to doubters within the party. But will PKR and DAP curb its less democratic tendencies? Is Pakatan a Trojan horse for a PAS-led Malaysia? Only time will tell.
With Anwar as an MP and leader of the opposition, the public discourse will refocus on Parliament. Still, Anwar's strength is as much a testimony to his extraordinary personality as it is to Umno's decline. If the party can learn from its defeats it will have a future. If not we'll be dependent on Anwar's undoubted charisma as he seeks to ride the three-headed Pakatan coalition to power.