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Anwar steps into the unknown
Publication Date : 31-01-2014
Uncomfortable. That is the best word to describe the body language of most of the political top brass at the packed press conference to announce that Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will be contesting the Kajang by-election.
Anwar seemed like he was in a hurry to get it over with. It was very awkward for him because what he had denied a day earlier was now unfolding before everyone’s eyes.
The task of announcing Anwar as the by-election candidate fell to Selangor Menteri Besar (state chief) Khalid Ibrahim. Khalid was his usual flustered self and his wavy hair looked like he had been standing in front of a fan.
When reporters asked whether he would be stepping down as menteri besar, he flashed a brave smile, paused, and said that was an “unrealistic question.”
None of the reporters could actually tell what that meant but there was little doubt that this was the beginning of the end for the corporate man-turned-politician. At best, poor Khalid looked like a lame duck menteri besar.
At worst, it was like a guillotine was inching towards him.
It was clear that the priority of the leaders of Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) was to first clear the hurdle of winning the by-election.
Then they will address the question of Anwar becoming the next menteri besar.
No one has any doubts by now that he is zooming in on the post.
He is certainly not contesting a by-election for the fun of being a state backbencher or executive councillor.
Moreover, as the Selangor economic adviser, he has taken the oath before the menteri besar which entitles him to attend state executive council meetings.
Opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (Pakatan) politicians, especially those from Selangor, are still in shock over the dramatic turn of events.
The Pakatan coalition is made up of the PKR, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
The decision for Anwar to take over the reins in Selangor was made at such a high and exclusive level that most of them were kept in the dark and only learnt about it in the media.
PKR politics, said a senior Selangor politician, is not very different from Umno politics, with lots of rivalry, big ambitions and back-stabbing.
The question being asked is why is Anwar taking such a big gamble?
Pakatan politicians cannot figure out why he would want to be menteri besar when he is supposed to be their candidate for prime minister.
Has he downsized his aspirations from prime minister to menteri besar?
Has he given up hope of Pakatan getting to Putrajaya?
Or is he planning to leverage on the menteri besar post to stay relevant and visible until the next general election?
The Selangor menteri besar post is a high-profile job, Selangor is the richest state in Malaysia with a sophisticated electorate.
If he succeeds he can convince Malaysians that he is indeed prime minister material.
Some even imagine he is doing this for his daughter and party vice-president Nurul Izzah, to divert attention from her on-off divorce and all the gossip surrounding the reason for her marital woes.
The reasons behind Anwar’s action are one thing. The more important concern among the Pakatan leadership is public opinion about the by-election.
The by-election move is coming barely nine months after the general election.
Moreover, this is the second forced by-election for him.
In 2008, his wife and party president Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail resigned as Permatang Pauh MP a few months after the 2008 general election to enable him to rejoin Parliament.
There has been quite a lot of disgruntled and critical chatter especially in cyberspace.
The general opinion was that the by-election was unnecessary and a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Moreover, it makes Pakatan, which is fond of lecturing the Barisan Nasional government on its spending habits, look contradictory and hypocritical.
Anwar risks being seen as taking the rakyat’s support for granted.
To date, no Pakatan leader has been able to explain the need for or justify the by-election.
If Khalid needs to be replaced, there are other assemblymen who can step in.
Two ready-made possibilities are Azmin Ali, who is PKR deputy president and Bukit Antarabangsa assemblyman, and Iskandar Samad of PAS, who is a state executive councillor.
PAS in particular is unhappy about the way the by-election decision was rushed through without a proper discussion.
The young Turks in PAS feel the party should have a shot at the top job because it won more seats than PKR in the general election.
They will have trouble explaining things to their grassroots and there is even talk of a silent boycott when the campaign starts.
Azmin’s supporters are confused and upset.
They feel that their man has been played out again and Tuesday afternoon, Azmin chaired an emergency Selangor PKR meeting to explain what had happened.
The PKR No. 2 is said to be disappointed. He has been patient and loyal but he keeps missing the boat. The Malays have a phrase for it – tiada rezeki (not meant to be).
When waylaid by the media on Tuesday, Azmin trotted out the official line: The by-election has been in the planning for sometime, Anwar’s candidature is aimed at strengthening the party and talk of a new Menteri besar is speculative.
It is hard to see how long PKR and its partners can maintain that line of argument.
Are the people of Kajang going to be persuaded that they are voting again because they need to strengthen the party?
It is a most unconvincing argument and PKR will have to do better than that if it wants voters to come out for Anwar.