The three contenders for the Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat, from left: Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah (BN),
Hanafi Hamat (Akim) and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (PKR)
“WHERE are we heading to?” asked a puzzled-looking Pakatan Rakyat supporter as he nudged his way through the crowd outside the nomination centre in Permatang Pauh.
Supporters of his stripe seemed to be coming and going in every direction. The first question on our minds as we threaded through the masses was “are we a bit late?” — uncertain as we were over such an early march.
It was only 8.15am on the Saturday morning of 16 Aug 2008. Nomination would only open at 9am. And yet the crowd was a near-impenetrable throng.
Up to 10,000 supporters from both the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat would eventually be present at the beginning of what just might be the most significant by-election in Malaysia’s history, because of the strong likelihood that it will result in the return of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim into Parliament.
If it happens, it will pave the way for him to make good on his promises to bring down the BN government and be the next prime minister.
The 10,000-strong crowdWaiting parties
As early as 7.30am, the Kulim-Butterworth Expressway that leads to the Institut Perguruan Tuanku Bainon (IPTB), the nomination centre for the by-election, was so jammed that three lanes were turned into de facto car parks.
Whenever a BN-marked car went through the Pakatan Rakyat entrance, the crowd would boo. The heat on the ground sizzled so much that Fuziah Salleh, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Wanita chief and MP for Kuantan, had to come out of her car to try and calm the party supporters.
By 8.30am, the PKR crowd had mostly filled up the field that had been designated for the party. BN followers only began arriving about 10 minutes later, at a much slower and more organised pace, in support of the BN contingent, which included Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, Datuk Seri Rais Yatim and Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu.
PKR de facto leader and candidate Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim arrived alongside several of the Pakatan Rakyat’s MPs and state assemblypersons, including Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim. Anwar, wearing a bright blue baju Melayu, was accompanied by his wife and daughters.
Who has their vote?
By all accounts, Anwar will win this by-election, though this doesn’t mean the BN is giving up without a fight. Case in point: the BN has chosen Seberang Jaya state assemblyman Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah from Umno to be its candidate.
Fluent in Mandarin and Hokkien, the 52-year-old is a popular figure in Permatang Pauh, especially with the Chinese. This could help the party reach out to the constituency’s non-Malay voters who abandoned the coalition in the 8 March 2008 general election.
On the same note, MIC president Samy Vellu is confident that Indian voters are swinging back to the BN. “We find that there is a mind change among [them].Things are working now. When the milk is boiling, you can’t break the pot,” said the former Sungai Siput MP, who added that the party is working to garner 65% of overall Indian votes.
Elsewhere, Umno information chief Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib told The Nut Graph that the by-election would be an opportunity for people to choose either political upheaval, or a stable government that can bring progress.
After five months of wasting time, voters should pick a party that can bring about “calm, prosperity and development”, he said.
Muhammad TaibAs in other elections, there is the possibility, and probability, of phantom voters. Pantai Jerejak state assemblyman Sim Tze Tzin, who is also Anwar’s political aide, said the PKR suspects that phantom voters will flood Permatang Pauh on polling day because it does not fall on a holiday.
“Many factory workers might not be able to turn out to vote, and this creates chances for phantom voters to come in,” he said.
Muhammad Taib, however, brushed off these allegations as mere “speculation”.
Show of support
The seeming inevitability of Anwar’s victory is not the only reason why thousands turned up on nomination day.
For the Pakatan Rakyat and its followers, it was reassuring that PAS spiritual advisor Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat and vice president Datuk Husam Musa turned up to support Anwar despite the Islamist party’s muktamar in Ipoh ending only on 17 Aug. This reassurance is especially precious given the recent overtures between PAS and Umno.
Pertinent, too, was how the DAP — with Guan Eng, Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh, among others — showed solidarity with its Pakatan Rakyat partners in a state governed by the party. And the People’s Progressive Party and Indian Progressive Front demonstrated their eagerness to supersede an ailing MIC within BN through consistent and strong commitment in flags and numbers.
The BN, particularly Umno, needs to demonstrate then that it will not back down in the face of a crisis. It was hard to disregard the absence of MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting and deputy president Tan Sri Chan Kong Choy, in the face of growing doubts over the party’s role in BN and the upcoming party elections.
The most senior MCA leader, vice-president Datuk Ong Tee Keat, maintained a semblance of solidarity by turning up, though his distance from other BN and Umno leaders, both literally and figuratively, was all too apparent.
The wicked political stage
The pomp, ceremony and bluster of nomination day must seem a gratuitous exercise in what is essentially a clerical matter. But make no mistake: once the ink has dried and the lawyers have finished butting heads, the art of the occasion (and it is an art, an act, a magnificent piece of theatre) is in the political power plays.
Hence the submission, and subsequent withdrawal, of PKR supreme council member Dr Mansor Othman’s name as the fourth candidate in this heated political race, raising speculation outside the nomination centre about what had gone wrong within the party.
All PKR vice-president Azmin Ali would tell journalists was that Dr Mansor, the former PKR Penang chief, was still a member of the party. Only later did party deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali reveal that Dr Mansor was merely the “spare tyre” in case Anwar was disqualified.
All said and done, the biggest show of the day must have been how the PKR projected its newly reinvigorated stature and influence, and how they made their boisterous presence felt in droves, complete with Anwar masks — V for Vendetta style. Everybody was Anwar. And Anwar was everybody.