PKR Merdeka-themed banners and slogans dot Seberang Jaya
THE de facto PKR leader is pulling out all the stops to ensure his campaign theme, Merdekakan Rakyat, will be his own redemption.
He has been portrayed as a man in a hurry, a BN star turned rebel who stands on the cusp of a new wave of democracy threatening to sweep away an entrenched system of political patronage.
And whether or not you buy into his promises of unseating the Federal Government soon, no one — neither his detractors nor his opponents — dares to ignore the threat that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim poses to the establishment.
The battle to send Anwar to Parliament, where he is slated to take on the role of opposition leader, is currently heating up in Permatang Pauh. The by-election to fill the seat vacated by his wife, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, takes place there on 26 Aug 2008.
The banners of PKR and its coalition partners have been unfurled, and buntings, posters, and stickers plaster building walls and telephone poles in this mostly rural constituency, where the Malays form a 70% majority.
Winning the hearts and minds of his fellow constituents is not a task Anwar takes lightly. After all, opposing him is the might of the well-oiled Barisan Nasional machinery, and its candidate, the likeable state assemblyman for Seberang Jaya, Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah. (There’s also another candidate, the PAS splinter group Akim’s Hanafi Hamat, but he has not figured in the campaigning so far.)
But this is a PKR stronghold — Wan Azizah won in her husband’s former seat in 1999, 2004 and 2008, the last by a majority of over 13,388 votes (Anwar was BN MP here from 1982 to 1999). Thus far, the ceramahs and meet-the-people sessions held by PKR have drawn large crowds. So it is the BN that seems to be on the back foot for once.
Anwar, however, knows that elections can turn on a dime and that many voters are still sitting on the fence. At a press conference on 20 Aug 2008 at the PKR bilik gerakan in Sama Gagah, Permatang Pauh, the former deputy prime minister told The Nut Graph that he doesn’t yet know what the exact percentage of support for him is on the ground.
He did, however, say he was gratified that Pakatan Rakyat partners PAS and DAP have turned up in full force to support him in Permatang Pauh. PAS’s presence is especially important in light of the recent talks between the Islamic party and arch-enemy Umno, as well as the current sodomy charge Anwar is facing.
Anwar’s campaign focuses on him being a viable choice to lead the nationAnwar was circumspect when asked about the PAS-Umno talks, and denied it had any effect on his campaign.
But the sodomy charge is something different altogether. In fact, talk about Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan — whose report on 29 June 2008 alleging that Anwar sodomised him set the whole shebang in motion — is a vital part of the by-election campaign. Anwar brings it up at practically every ceramah as an example of the present government’s abuse of power; and some BN leaders (but not the candidate, Arif) have alluded to the sodomy charge as proof that Anwar is morally unfit to govern.
When asked about the comments made by BN speakers on the sodomy case and Anwar’s own alleged abuse of power during his time in government, the PKR leader smiled and said: “[All] this cucuk-cucuk doesn’t work.”
But with Saiful getting plenty of media attention (videoclips of his recent swearing on the Quran have been distributed in Permatang Pauh), the Anwar camp knows they have to find a way to neutralise the damage, especially among Muslim voters.
A second Merdeka
The full force of the campaign is being targeted at majority Malay areas. PAS heavyweights, including spiritual advisor Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, who made an appearance on nomination day on 16 Aug, are being roped in to appeal to the faithful.
On 17 Aug, Datuk Paduka Husam Musa and Abdul Ghani Shamsudin, who is an ustaz, spearheaded the campaign at the ceramah in Bukit Jelutong, and ripped into Saiful for swearing on the Quran. Husam said: “If anyone can swear on the Quran to clear his name, then there is no need to have a judiciary system in our country.”
Still, some quarters believe PAS can do more to help Anwar, and point to the fact that PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang was conspicuously absent from Permatang Pauh until 19 Aug, when he made a brief appearance, fuelling talk that the party is not fully supportive of Anwar’s campaign.
But a check with PKR strategy director and MP for Machang Saifuddin Nasution Ismail reveals that the support for the campaign from the ground is “very encouraging”.
And according to PKR information chief Tian Chua, though the party is confident that Anwar is still leading in the polls, PKR is very cautious because “the rival camp is playing the racial and religious card, [and] there’s also the issue of phantom voters.”
It is a second Merdeka for the people, says PKR information chief Tian ChuaPKR’s campaign, on the other hand, has concentrated on the national issue of government corruption and abuse of power. There are plenty of Merdeka-themed slogans capitalising on the coming national day celebrations, exhorting the people, V for Vendetta-style, to rise up for their freedom.
“Merdeka dari penindasan dan kezaliman”, proclaims a banner that adorns the stage from which Anwar unveiled his campaign theme in Seberang Jaya on the morning of 19 Aug.
There were also plenty of other, similar slogans on car stickers and the like, directing attention from BN’s attacks on Anwar’s credibility back to the government’s flaws and abuses. For instance, the slogan on the stage backdrop that Anwar unveiled proclaimed: “Negara ini bukan negara Umno/BN punya, ini adalah negara kita, Negara Rakyat!”
“It is a second Merdeka for the people. We want to free people from the suppression of human rights, economic opportunities and judiciary. We want to return to the spirit of the constitution during the Merdeka era.
“Because after 51 years of independence, our country still continues with the divide-and-rule policies of the feudal and colonial period,” Chua told The Nut Graph when asked about the campaign theme.
Past and presence
However, some campaigners told The Nut Graph they are very uncertain about the Malay support in Permatang Pauh.
The painful experience of the Ijok by-election in 2007 (where PKR’s Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim lost to MIC candidate K Partiban despite most pundits predicting an opposition victory) still reverberates within them, and is a telling indicator that voter sentiment in a by-election is hard to gauge.
In fact, this could be the reason why Permatang Pauh was chosen to be Anwar’s launching pad into Parliament. Knowing the intensity of the campaign, and the limited resources of the PKR fighting against the might of the BN in a one-on-one contest, Anwar needs the surety of a solid base of support, which he is guaranteed here.
Anwar is close to the people in the constituency, and this relationship extends to even before his election as MP in 1982. As president of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim), Anwar had been giving sermons during Friday prayers here since his 20s.
“He has never lost touch with the people. His mother was the women’s division chief, and he continues his family’s tradition [of serving the people]. He has never shifted his base from his days in Abim or Umno,” said Khalid Jaafar, a former political secretary to Anwar.
PKR ceremahs are well-attended by all races, but will it actually translate to votes?Khalid also nodded his head when asked by The Nut Graph whether Kulim and Bandar Tun Razak — which were earlier mentioned as possible seats for Anwar’s parliamentary entry — were red herrings to confuse the BN.
Anwar’s campaign is round-the-clock, and the candidate has been on a very extensive daily programme of walkabouts, ceramahs, kenduris and meetings, crosscutting the Permatang Pauh constituency.
The message being put across is clear: Anwar is a viable choice to lead the nation. And this is proving an attractive package to many of the voters, who like the idea that their pick could well be Prime Minister.
Of course, the BN is trying to counter this, with Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak complaining that it is improper and misleading to have a slogan like “Dari Permatang Pauh ke Putrajaya” (one of the catchier PKR banners), as the government can only be formed after a new general election is held.
“Currently, BN has 141 seats in Parliament. It means in order to topple the government, one-third of the MPs have to cross over to the opposition.
“If we follow true democratic principles, it is improper for the representatives to cross over because they were chosen on the party ticket. And the people have chosen BN. This is not the way to form a government, by stealing MPs from other political parties,” he said during one press conference.
But which is the concern of the voters: the morality of having crossover MPs or to Merdekakan Rakyat? The answer will be known on 26 Aug, when the Permatang Pauh voters go to the polls.