Home 2008: 1 How will Keadilan fare?

How will Keadilan fare?

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 Anwar at a ceramah in Kelantan on 8 February 2008

With Pas and the DAP expected to make gains, all eyes are on how Keadilan will fare. Terence Netto explores whether Keadilan’s multi-racial agenda will find support in the mixed constituencies, where the BN traditionally had an advantage.

It was former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who famously observed that a week is a long time in politics. This apothegm enjoys immortality because it is an accurate reflection of the nature of politics: it is the art of the possible and so predicting with precision what would happen is risky work.

If Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) wins five parliamentary seats in the 12th general election, which, incidentally, is the number it won on its electoral debut in1999, it would be deemed to have done well. This is the reckoning of those who tend to a realist view of the party’s chances.

Of course, PKR optimists would be disappointed if their parliamentary tally is five seats only, judging from the crowds that flocked to hear their iconic leader, Anwar Ibrahim, when he campaigned the length and breadth of Peninsular Malaysia, in parts of Sabah and in places in Sarawak, in the last six months. They reckon they can win as many as 24 seats.

This calculation is based on their expectation that the party will do well in mixed race constituencies where either the Malay or Chinese presence is about half the total number of voters and the remainder is a combination of either Malay/Indian or Chinese/Indian voters. PKR’s multi-racial projection would receive a vital boost if the party did well in about 40 seats that are of this racial mix in Peninsula Malaysia which has 166 parliamentary seats.

Multi-racial agenda

PKR’s de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim has worked hard to give the party a multi-racial agenda – though in fielding Saifuddin Nasution in the Lunas state by-election in Kedah in November 2000 and Khalid Ibrahim in the Ijok state by-election in Selangor in April 2007, the party had preferred a Malay candidate in seats held by Indian Barisan Nasional representatives.

Though these decisions weakened the party’s claims to multi-racialism, it was felt that it had to use Malay candidates in its initial forays for the Malay vote because they stood a greater chance of victory in what is considered a transitional phase in PKR’s attempted transformation of the Malaysian political landscape. Show that you can win the Malay vote first with Malay candidates; then unveil the party’s non-Malay line-up for all races to support.

This strategy has been on track for some time. The upcoming general election is expected to put it to its most exacting test of the party’s nine-year existence. PKR enthusiasts hold that Anwar has succeeded in giving his agenda of reform a  multi-racial appeal that has tapped into wells of discontent among left-out Malays, have-not Chinese, marginalised Indians, native customary rights-threatened Dayaks, and dirt-poor Kadazans.

Anwar has projected himself and PKR as the avenue for the salvation of all Malaysians who feel that the ruling Umno-dominated BN is incapable of regeneration and is, after a 50-year run at the helm, in a slow death dance that is likely to expire at the next round of internecine feuding within the dominant party. In other words, the BN is subsisting by the momentum of its past successes rather than by mastery of its present challenges.

This was demonstrated in the way the government responded to the mass gathering electoral reform group Bersih organised last November 10 and the one the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) called on 25 November 2007. In both instances, the government, stunned by the size of the gatherings, reacted as if it faced a dagger aimed at its heart rather than a thorn in its flesh.

By its overreaction, it managed to transform a potential embarrassment into a public relations disaster which played itself out not just on the web but also in satellite television news channels that have a wide following in the region and on the Asian continent.

The beneficiaries in both instances were the opposition parties, with PKR, the DAP and  Pas gaining to varying extents from the way they positioned themselves in regard to calls for electoral reforms and in respect of the desperate pleas of Indian Malaysians for urgent attention to their socio-economic plight.

Anwar’s manoeuvring on the latter issue is reckoned to have gone a long way in gaining Indian support for PKR. Indians have always voted solidly for the BN but are expected to desert the coalition in favour of the opposition in what, if it eventuates, would be an astonishing turnaround.                       
Anwar has been a crowd puller, especially after he released last September a video of a senior lawyer apparently brokering judicial appointments. When a royal commission sat from mid-January this year to inquire into the imbroglio, the testimony of key witnesses and the commission’s refusal to call Anwar to testify made the latter an even more compelling crowd puller on the hustings.

Keadilan should do well

The expected outcome: PKR should do well in the polls because its leader, on the cusp of prime ministerial power, was a victim of a conspiracy in 1998 aimed at removing him from the political arena. This perception – combined with Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s inability to make headway against corruption, reform the police and civil service, reduce crime and keep prices in check – has made Malaysian voters aware as never before that a strong opposition in Parliament is necessary.  

Except in 1969, the ruling Barisan Nasional, known in its pre-1972 incarnation as the Alliance, has never lost its two-thirds’ majority in the Federal Parliament.

Twice in the last 20 years, the BN appeared to be on the verge of this loss – which has come to stand as an index of the acceptance and suitability for national leadership, or otherwise, of the person who happens to be president of Umno,  who doubles as Prime Minister of Malaysia.

The first time was in the 1990 elections, when Umno splinter, the Tengku Razaleigh-led Semangat 46, was joined by Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) in a late defection from the BN stable . But then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed cynically exploited Malay voters’ fears of a Christian resurgence in Sabah to stall their defection to the opposition Gagasan Rakyat coalition of Semangat  46, Pas, Democratic Action Party and PBS.

The second time the BN’s two-third dominance of Parliament was endangered was at the 10th general election in November 1999. The defection of Anwar loyalists from Umno following his sacking and jailing the previous year, led to the creation of PKR. Its combination with DAP and Pas in the Barisan Alternatif (BA) threatened BN with the loss of its two-thirds’ cushion in Parliament. Alas, the insistence of Pas on its Islamic state agenda pushed the non-Malays to stay with the BN while large numbers of Malays, angered at Anwar’s mistreatment, voted for Pas and PKR. The BN, helped by non-Malay voters, emerged with its two-thirds’ majority intact.

The 11th general election in March 2004 was new Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s debut election. Viewed as a refreshing change from his autocratic predecessor Dr Mahathir, Abdullah swept on a new broom platform to a record 63.8% of the popular vote. PKR was almost buried in the Abdullah avalanche, barely holding on to Anwar’s bastion of Permatang Pauh, occupied by wife Azizah.

Four years on, Harold Wilson’s observation of time and tides’ centrifugal effect on political fortunes is a stark reminder of the transient nature of political fortunes and the  hazardous business of electoral prognostication.

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