FOR some, the Permatang Pauh by-election is a “presidential” by-election. Granted, you can’t have a president unless Malaysia were a republic; but what is meant by this is, the battle will decide not only the parliamentarian for the constituency in Penang, but also the Prime Minister of Malaysia. In other words, this is a national election to decide the Chief Executive.
Empirically, if Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim sustains or even increases the 13,388 margin his wife Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail won five months ago, his plan to bring down the federal government through defections will receive a boost.
Such a victory will have multiple meanings. Firstly, it will be a resounding “No!” to the Sodomy I conviction in 1999 that barred him from politics for 10 years, and the Sodomy II case now that aims to terminate his political life. It will be a judgment on the judiciary, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, and the police, who are all being tried in the court of public opinion.
It will also be a triumph for the “new politics” experimented by the Pakatan Rakyat. It will boost PKR’s conviction to do away with the New Economic Policy and replace it with a National Economic Agenda.
And it will strengthen the support for the pro-Pakatan faction within PAS that is rejecting the talks with Umno on Malay/Muslim unity that apparently came with the lucrative offer of deputy premiership.
Even DAP can then claim that the Penang Malays accept the Pakatan Rakyat state government under its helm, since Permatang Pauh is a 69.4% Malay constituency, and one of its state seats is held by PKR’s number one in the state government, Deputy Chief Minister (I) Mohammad Fairus Khairuddin.
Without a doubt, these would be big bonuses for the democratisation of Malaysia.
Rushing in for regime change
The same may not be said for the next goal: bringing down the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi government — with a popularity of 42% at a recent poll — with the momentum from the by-election.
Anwar has promised to deliver the regime change on 16 Sept 2008. That day in September is the very day in 1963 when Malaysia was born out of a union of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore. Incidentally, this goal is increasingly shared by many Malaysians from all walks of life.
An ENT surgeon told me that his colleagues nowadays no longer condemn the politicians; they are waiting for the change to happen. For many businesspeople, the concern is not “Should Anwar do it?”, but “Can Anwar do it?” And many bloggers have long called upon others to hang their ethics on the issue of party defections.
Many Malaysians just want change. For some, 50 years of Umno/Barisan Nasional (BN) authoritarian rule is more than enough.
Others just long for political stability. They were delighted by the effect of the power they exercised on 8 March 2008, but are at the same time disturbed by the neverending political manoeuvres after the poll.
Since prime minister Abdullah cannot control the situation, and deputy premier Najib Razak’s credibility is severely tainted by the Altantuya case, many believe Anwar is the one to restore political stability and steer the economy in a time of trial.
Can Anwar deliver political stability?
In America, John McCain runs a web advertisement that sarcastically portrays presidential rival Barack Obama as “the one” with whom “the world will be blessed”, but still asks, “Is he ready to lead?”
In Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim is doubtlessly ready to lead. In fact, he has been leading the government to reverse the oil price hike. The question of whether he will be the one to restore political stability is harder to answer.
Drawing parallels between Obama and Anwar (Obama pic © Jeff Schultes / Dreamstime)
If he succeeds in bringing down the government through defections, the restoration of political stability depends on three factors: the line-up of his cabinet and the sharing of spoils; the composition of the opposition; and the demands of unelected institutions.
Now, Anwar cannot even announce his shadow cabinet line-up because he needs to leave room for the defectors. Will he eventually satisfy everyone? Likely, but perhaps not without an “inflated” cabinet.
See, if Abdullah had more than 90 frontbenchers after 2004 to appease Umno warlords, Anwar may need to have four deputies in 2008. His first-in-line successor would have to be a PKR Malay. But East Malaysians, too, would expect one deputy from among them. And after the Umno-PAS talks, PKR is quite unlikely not to match Umno’s offer to PAS. Now, if there are to be DPMs from East Malaysia and PAS, you will expect DAP — likely Kit Siang — to be made an offer, too.
A more important but almost rarely asked question is: who will be the new parliamentary opposition leader? Anwar has never painted a picture of the opposition he expects, notwithstanding his occasional joke that Abdullah would succeed Wan Azizah.
Essentially, who and how many will remain in the ousted BN to play the role of opposition? Who will lead the opposition Umno — people like Shahrir Samad, Zaid Ibrahim and Shabery Cheek? Or the likes of Najib, Hishamuddin Hussein and Mukhriz Mahathir?
Can they swallow their bitter loss due to defections and humbly accept the role of loyal opposition? Or will they try every method, constitutional or not, to bring down the new government?
If they see themselves as too weak to come back in power for the foreseeable future, would desperation lead them to play the joint champion of Malay nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism? Will the government resort to police roadblocks or even the Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act to control the situation?
That’s where the third question becomes all the more important. What position would the unelected institutions — the monarchy, the military, the police, the civil service — take? What price would they extract for political cooperation with or against Anwar?
Political stability within sight? You tell me.
The real key to stability
The root cause of political instability today is that the political parties cannot accept their long term co-existence. Hence, Anwar’s plan to destroy Umno by engineering defections, leaving Malay politics to PKR and PAS. Hence, Umno initiating talks with PAS to destroy PKR.
We will have real political stability when the parties willingly accept each other as legitimate opponents and prepare long-term strategies in this light.
For the next two years, I want Anwar to be an effective parliamentary opposition leader and spokesperson for the Pakatan Rakyat’s five state governments. That will force BN to accept the new reality and prepare to survive as the opposition.
I therefore hope he will win handsomely the by-election, but not the presidential election some imagine. He must not mistake himself as Obama. He is certainly not The One.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his bible to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.