Is PKR having teething problems? (pacifier © yenhoon / sxc.hu)
THE Bagan Pinang by-election on 11 Oct 2009 initially looked like it was going to be a three-cornered fight. Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s former Teluk Kemang branch leader Shahruddin Abdul Hamid tried to submit his nomination on 3 Oct 2009, but it was rejected by the Election Commission because his seconder was not a local.
A couple of days later, Shahruddin announced his support for Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate, Tan Sri Isa Samad. On 8 Oct, Shahruddin tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview that he had joined Umno.
Isa (centre) wins Bagan Pinang by-election
The analysis about the nine by-election results including Bagan Pinang’s aside, what else are we learning from these polls?
For one, it seems as though a pattern is developing with PKR members during by-election season. For example, in the Bukit Selambau by-election in April 2009, a good number of the 13 “independent” candidates were disgruntled grassroots PKR leaders. And then in the Penanti by-election in April, former local PKR leader Aminah Abdullah grabbed headlines when she promised to “expose” corruption and abuse of power within PKR as part of her campaign.
What gives? No other peninsula-based party seems to have these sorts of problems that PKR does. In fact, the level of disgruntlement among these former PKR leaders can get quite vicious. But what really is the problem?
Is it that PKR is a relative newcomer to the political scene in Malaysia, and these are merely teething problems? Could it be an attempt at sabotaging the party? If so, is the sabotage internally driven or externally plotted?
Elements of sabotage
Chong (pic courtesy of Jonson
PKR communications director Jonson Chong says that there is definitely sabotage at play, and it originates outside the party. “It is an abuse of the democratic process — every time there is a by-election, the BN will try to entice one of our (PKR’s) people or others from Pakatan Rakyat (PR),” he tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.
PKR vice-president R Sivarasa agrees. He tells The Nut Graph, “If the sabotage were internally driven, you would see this sort of thing happening constantly, and not just during by-elections.”
“For example, look at the MCA with its ongoing infighting,” he says in a phone interview. “That’s the signature of an internally-driven conflict.”
It appears that Sivarasa and Chong have hit the nail on the head. When The Nut Graph asks Shahruddin what motivated him to leave PKR, he says, “At the local level, the PKR tree is shady, it fruits abundantly, but its roots are brittle.” When asked to decipher this cryptic message, Shahruddin says instead, “I wanted to contest here (in Bagan Pinang), but I was told that if I wanted to contest I had to resign, so I resigned.” And then he says he was invited to join Umno, and thought why not, since he already knew Isa.
But when quizzed further about why he was leaving a party that is multiracial and talks about clean governance to join a race-based party that is tainted with corruption, Shahruddin is at a loss for an answer. “I wasn’t in PKR for that long. I only joined after 2004. Before that I was an Umno member for more than 20 years.”
Apparently, Shahruddin left Umno in 2004 after Isa contested in the general election and won the Jempol parliamentary seat. Isa was then appointed Federal Territories minister and that’s when trouble began in the local Umno division. “There were tussles for positions,” says Shahruddin, by way of explaining why he left Umno for PKR.
Sivarasa (file pic)
But Sivarasa says that this is not something he is overly concerned about. He points towards the DAP, which had its own headaches with leaders crossing over to the BN in the 1970s. Chong agrees that such dynamics are an “unfortunate fact about new organisations”.
Therefore, Sivarasa says there is no need for the party to have a screening process for new members. “We are signing up around 10,000 new members every month. Some will eventually say they don’t buy into the party and leave. But more people are joining every day.”
Sivarasa says his alarm bells would go off only if the party’s national congress adopted “some weird position” that altered the party’s direction. “But if tomorrow a branch or a division walks out on the party, they are just a speck in the party’s membership.”
But does this not mean that the party will face a ticking time bomb every time a by-election is announced? Chong does not discount the fact, and says, “Hopefully by the next party elections (in 2010), we should have consolidated the party leadership and cleaned up unfortunate elements.”
Fariz Musa (file pic)
PKR Youth deputy chief Fariz Musa tells The Nut Graph that such shenanigans do affect cohesion within the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). “PR solidarity was really tight and strong before this in Bagan Pinang. But when Shahruddin initially announced that he wanted to contest under PKR, it created some amount of distrust between PAS and PKR,” he admits in a phone interview.
“But ultimately, Shahruddin’s failure to file his nomination impacted upon Umno itself, meaning that Umno failed to split the vote here (with a third candidate contesting),” he says. Although with Isa’s thumping victory at the polls, the argument that Umno wanted to split the votes seems a little bit shaky. In fact, having a third candidate may have helped the PR lose with a smaller majority to the BN in Bagan Pinang.
Still, that doesn’t remove the fact that if past trends are anything to go by, every time a by-election crops up, PKR will have to brace itself for an internal surprise.
What complicates things even more is that PKR itself traces its origins to Parti KeADILan Nasional — a party formed around former Umno deputy president and Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. It is constantly attracting ex-Umno, and by extension other ex-BN, leaders to its fold.
The flux of members joining and then defecting could just be part of the growing pains of a young party. But they also seem tied to the party’s own history and the nature of BN and PR politics in Malaysia. The question is, will this make or break PKR?
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