(Pic by Jascha400d / sxc.hu)
IS the timing of the resignations from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) before and during the one-week Hulu Selangor by-election campaign purely coincidental?
Two days before nomination day on 17 April 2010, Bakar Arang assemblyperson Tan Wei Shu became an independent lawmaker in the Kedah state assembly. As if knowingly, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin hinted the next day that there would be a “major PKR defection” the following day. On 19 April, PKR Hulu Selangor division treasurer Dr Halili Rahmat changed sides to join Umno. Halili could have been PKR’s candidate in the Hulu Selangor by-election, but Datuk Zaid Ibrahim was chosen instead.
By then, seven from Shah Alam PKR Youth, including its head and deputy, also quit the party. In Penang, around 200 members of PKR’s Bayan Baru division also quit. They accused Zaid of protecting Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s interest and not the voters’.
“There will be more leaving in days to come … up to 300 are quitting PKR,” claimed another defector, former Penang deputy chief minister Fairus Khairuddin, who first quit his Penanti state seat to force a by-election before eventually leaving PKR. Fairus is campaigning for the Barisan Nasional (BN) in Hulu Selangor.
Without proof, the truth about the timing of these recent resignations is something the media can only speculate on. Were they orchestrated? Were the defectors bought? Maybe. Maybe not. But beyond that, they point to the larger dynamics about PKR’s ongoing evolution from a party that championed one man, to a party that champions all Malaysians.
Anwar-centric to people-centric
More defections from PKR are indeed possible, and there could be any number of reasons. Disgruntlement. Personality differences. Lack of rewards. But another reason is that PKR is in transition from being a party centred on ensuring Anwar’s political existence to cementing its multiracial agenda.
PKR has its roots in Keadilan, the party founded after Anwar was sacked from government and jailed in 1999 over corruption and sodomy charges. The sense of collective injustice felt by the public consolidated around the symbol of Anwar. He was released from prison in 2004, after his sodomy conviction was overturned by the Federal Court.
Anwar returned to national politics in the August 2008 Permatang Pauh by-election after the ban on his running for elections expired. By then, PKR’s rhetoric, while still focused on Anwar as a symbol of injustice and suffering at the BN’s hands, had expanded to include the everyday and national concerns of the layperson. PKR stood against affirmative action for one race only, and promised aid to all who were needy irrespective of race. It pledged to stand for justice for all people, even as Anwar was still its mascot. It sold.
Along the way, as the party moved from being Anwar-centric to people-centric, some members got disappointed. There are perhaps different reasons. As the party took up a broader range of human rights issues and put former activists in leadership positions, there would inevitably be ideological clashes. This could be the group of leaders with “leftist ideologies” that Halili claimed Malay Malaysians could not accept, and why he said PKR had strayed from its original struggles.
Halili’s reason is somewhat similar to that of Kulim-Bandar Baru Member of Parliament Zulkifli Noordin, who was sacked by PKR and who felt the party wasn’t doing enough to protect Islam.
Zulkifli’s position aside, many actually observe that PKR is deliberately ambiguous when it comes to religious issues because of conservatives within its ranks. It may have an open stance on the use of “Allah” by other religious communities. But despite being the only truly multiracial party around, notice how its leaders will not commit to a secular state the way DAP leaders do. Just compare the answers in The Nut Graph‘s MP Watch: Eye on Parliament project.
Halili Also note how Halili and Zulkifli were long-time Anwar associates. Halili was with Keadilan since its reformasi days, and was Anwar’s physician for a period. Zulkifli was Anwar’s lawyer in the first sodomy trial. The question is, how far can loyalty to one person take you when personal principles are being challenged?
Hence, it may be a good idea for PKR to bank its survivability on its principles for all people and not on Anwar’s cult personality or emotive appeals, such as his using of the anti-Jewish card.
All this illustrates that PKR’s challenge, as it finetunes its position going forward, is two-fold. The party needs to be a genuinely multiracial party. And it also needs to separate itself from the cult of Anwar. This is the path to long-term survival.
PKR also cannot afford to constantly dismiss defections with “good riddance“. Since 2008, a total of nine lawmakers have quit the party: six at state level and three parliamentarians. A tenth, Zulkifli, was sacked. A key figure, former party secretary general Datuk Salehuddin Hashim, has also left.
PKR must self reflect, improve its political education among members and leaders, and not be too quick or too arrogant to lay blame wholly on the BN for the resignations.
The BN is naturally using the defections to stoke voter perception against PKR. Two days after Fairus’s prediction, two Perak PKR Wanita leaders quit to join Umno. One of them even said, “This is the time to announce that we are leaving as it will be a bonus for Barisan to win the Hulu Selangor by-election.”
Will there be any impact on voters? Among the party faithful, hardly. But for PKR, it’s best to think long-term, and not take people’s loyalty to Anwar for granted.