A banner in front of the Permatang Pauh PKR headquarters
IT has been a long, bruising battle, filled with attacks and parries of increasing intensity that seem straight out of Sun Tzu’s fabled Art of War. Every day has brought new, sometimes disturbing developments in the campaigning for the Permatang Pauh parliamentary by-election
The voters in this predominately rural Malay constituency, and the public at large, have been treated to a “dirty tricks” campaign that has thrown in everything but the kitchen sink. Take your pick from slander, swearing, sex, assaults and harassment, to allegations of electoral fraud, vote buying, a dubious doctoral degree, and even death threats.
The main personalities contesting the by-election, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah, couldn’t be more different. One is a charismatic former deputy prime minister who is desperate to re-enter Parliament; the other is a chubby, likeable state assemblyman who prefers to let voters judge him by his service record.
Nearing the final stretch, both candidates appear confident of victory, but on the ground, it is hard to gauge for sure which way the wind will blow come polling day on 26 Aug 2008.
Complicating matters is the part that may be played by the third candidate, Hanafi Hamat of Angkatan Keadilan Insan Malaysia (Akim), a PAS splinter group.
Since nomination day on 16 Aug, both the BN and PKR have been aware of the very high stakes involved in this by-election. For Anwar, who was Member of Parliament (MP) here from 1982 to 1999 when he was convicted and jailed on sodomy and corruption charges (the Federal Court overturned the sodomy conviction in September 2004), it would be the first step towards realising his dream of forming a new government and becoming prime minister.
For Arif, winning here means, in his own words, “an end to the 10-year curse of Permatang Pauh”, referring to what he says is a lack of development in the decade that this Penang constituency has been under PKR rule.
Anwar’s wife and PKR president, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, won the seat in the 1999 general election and retained it in 2004 and 2008. Her resignation on 31 July paved the way for the by-election.
In a press conference at his home in Seberang Jaya on 24 Aug, the white-haired, 52-year old Arif explained that there was only so much he could do as a state assemblyman in a Pakatan Rakyat-controlled state.
“As an MP, I would have access to federal allocations and funds. I can also call upon my personal relationship with the Prime Minister to channel funds into the constituency, which has been neglected in the past 10 years,” said Arif, who runs a “friendly” campaign that prefers to be non-confrontational.
PKR, aided by the election machinery of its Pakatan Rakyat partners, DAP and PAS, initially held the upper hand in the election campaign. Anwar’s well-practised stump speeches put out a consistent and catchy message of Memerdekakan Rakyat and From Permatang Pauh to Putrajaya — focusing on the core issues of corruption, national unity, stability, justice and the economy. And of course, the imminent change of government — from the BN to Pakatan Rakyat rule if a majority of voters pick Anwar.
Anwar portrays himself as a national leader ready to take the main stage; Arif, on the other hand, refers to his opponent as one who wants to be a global leader.
“He is only using Permatang Pauh as a stepping stone,” Arif tells The Nut Graph. “The voters don’t want leaders who are national or global. They want someone who can attend to their needs.”
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak, who has been leading the BN campaign machinery here, also pooh-poohs Anwar’s Putrajaya ambitions.
During his visit to the BN operations centre in Simpang Tiga, Kubang Ulu on 23 Aug, Najib said he did not see how this one by-election alone could catapult Anwar to the federal government administrative centre of Putrajaya.
To Anwar’s claims that BN MPs from East Malaysia would hop over to the Pakatan Rakyat if Anwar wins, Najib reiterated that the Sabah MPs would stay put.
Art of discrediting
Still, the prospect of Anwar leading a parliamentary revolt to oust the BN from more than 50 years of power has scared Umno. The dominant party in the ruling coalition has resorted to using base issues to appeal to voters and discredit Anwar.
From the very start, the name of Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan has been on the lips of Umno leaders — including Najib, Umno Youth deputy chief Khairy Jamaluddin, and one-time PKR Youth chief turned Umno member Mohd Ezam Mohd Nor — and thus on voters’ minds.
A leaflet distributed by BN campaigners goading Anwar to follow Saiful’s example of swearing on the QuranA former Anwar aide, 23-year-old Saiful lodged a report on 28 June that he had been sodomised by Anwar, in what seemed to the nation to be a replay of the 1998 charges against the once rising star of Umno. Anwar was subsequently arrested and charged with sodomy on 7 Aug — thickening the theories of political conspiracy in coffee shops and among serious pundits — but was released on personal bond.
The video clip of Saiful swearing on the Quran has been widely circulated, and is shown at every BN ceramah. Innuendos and downright crude jokes, some uttered in ceramahs, others appearing in BN leaflets, have been made at Anwar’s expense, riling his supporters. Luckily, the overwhelming police and Federal Reserve Unit presence in Permatang Pauh has so far ensured that both camps don’t resort to violence.
Still, Anwar has been forced to deal with the Saiful issue, even as he refuses to do what Khairy and Najib have goaded him to: do his own bit of swearing on the Quran.
Reaching out to PAS
With Muslims making up about 68% of voters in Permatang Pauh, Anwar knows the Saiful issue could prove decisive. And with Akim’s Hanafi possibly stealing votes away from PKR, the BN could well end up edging ahead.
To shore up his credibility, Anwar has reached out to PAS — which enjoys strong support in the area — to neutralise the liwat allegations. A number of its leaders, including spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat and his deputy Datuk Dr Harun Din, have spoken out against the validity of swearing on the Quran.
Harun, especially at the ceramah perdana on 23 Aug at Taman Guar Perahu, held the 3,000-strong crowd enthralled with his detailed and clear explanation of when, where, and under what circumstances such swearing is required in Islam. The message was clear: for the sodomy accusation to stand, four witnesses are required by syariah law. Anything less is unacceptable.
The BN has also tried to play up a possible rift between PKR and PAS over the choice of Anwar over PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang as leader of the envisioned Pakatan Rakyat government, if and when it is formed.
Indeed, at the PAS muktamar from 15 to 17 Aug 2008 in Ipoh, PAS delegates called for Hadi Awang to head the government, arguing that he was more qualified. But at the 23 Aug ceramah perdana in Taman Guar Perahu, Hadi Awang seemed to snuff out any question over who would lead the Pakatan Rakyat government. He ended his 10-minute address by asking voters to support Anwar as MP, and as the nation’s future leader.
Gone through worse
Anwar is surrounded by reporters after his walkabout at Tokong Kebun Sayur in Permatang Pasir on 24 Aug 2008Anwar himself, both on stage and at impromptu media conferences during his walkabouts, has kept to his message and remains focused on the issues. Speaking to reporters after a campaign stop in the Chinese area of Tokong Kebun Sayur in Permatang Pasir, a relaxed-looking Anwar told reporters that he is not going to change his campaign strategy in the light of the BN’s personal attacks.
“I’m going to keep focusing on my message, and I have directed my campaign workers to do the same and keep explaining the issues to the people,” he said.
“In my time, I have gone through far worse. I’ve been beaten, stripped, persecuted and deprived of my liberty. This is nothing,” he added, referring to the personal attacks.
He refused to speculate on his chances of winning, but said the level of support from all races and groups has been encouraging.
However, Anwar complained that his campaign workers had been harassed by police, and alleged that the BN used money to buy votes, and utilised the mass media to push its message across. This made it extremely hard for PKR, he said.
Anwar was also worried about possible low voter turnout on polling day. But Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s 24 Aug declaration that polling day will be a state holiday should give PKR campaigners a boost.
Two other looming concerns may have an impact on the by-election long after polling is over. One is the flap over the electoral roll being used by the Election Commission (EC); and the other is Arif’s admission that he paid money to locals for “intelligence work”.
PKR says the electoral roll being used for the by-election has yet to be gazetted, and has written to the EC and is awaiting a reply.
As for “intelligence work”, electoral expert Wong Chin Huat argues in his blog that there are no provisions for payment for such work under Section 21 of the Election Offences Act 1954. It is left to be seen if Arif’s admission will land him in hot water.
Many other complaints abound, from damage to campaign paraphernalia to fake posters, and even attacks on campaign workers’ vehicles, all of which have been recorded by the Malaysian for Free and Fair Election.
The end may be in sight for Anwar, the BN and the nation when the results of the Permatang Pauh by-election are announced on the night of 26 Aug. Then again, it just might be the beginning of more to come.