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Voters may still have appetite for Anwar

Publication Date : 15-02-2014


As Anwar Ibrahim heads to Kajang for a crucial by-election next month, he could hope to be like the satay the Selangor town is famous for - spicy and sought-after.

But hopefully not stale.

Few in Malaysia have served up as much excitement on the political scene in the past four decades as the former student activist turned deputy prime minister turned political dissident turned opposition leader.

While his message of reform still has wide appeal, some think the 66-year-old opposition chief risks looking like yesterday's leftovers.

His so-called Kajang Move to force a by-election and take over as Selangor menteri besar (state chief) has been called Kajang-gate by his critics, who say it is a waste of public funds for the glory of one man. His own explanation is that his presence will strengthen the Selangor government, making the state a showcase for his coalition to woo voters in the next general election.

Many appear willing to give him another chance, if only because they are less enamoured with the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) -led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, in power since independence in 1957.

"For the dream of finally replacing Umno, Malaysians are willing to overlook a great many things, and Anwar is one of the best salesmen of dreams this country has ever seen," said Nathaniel Tan, a former close Anwar aide turned one of his harshest critics.

While there have been no official polls on the impact of the Kajang Move, analysts say the chances of the BN beating Anwar in Kajang is close to nil. He is already on the unofficial campaign trail in Kajang constituency, located half an hour south of Kuala Lumpur by car. By contrast, the BN has yet to name a candidate.

Anwar's talents are well known. His charisma is such that he can still seat an Islamic party of Malays with a socialist-leaning Chinese-led party at the same dinner table for the sixth year, despite their different menus.

Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) make up the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition.

Thousands continue to follow Anwar as he goes around Kajang, happy to see him skewer the government.

"He's the perfect example of an underdog, especially with the stories of the jailing and sodomy trials," said Dr James Chin, a political analyst at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "He's also truly popular among non-Malays for being the only senior Malay leader who wants to reform the Malay-centric National Economic Policy. Others say it too, but the people won't really believe it if you don't have Anwar-like stature."

The danger for Anwar, PKR and the PR alliance is, in fact, hubris.

He has broken one too many promises, such as going back on his vow to retire if the opposition failed to form the government after the 14th general election last year.

That has irritated many Malaysians. "People got tired after the GE14 let-down when Pakatan did not win," said Eric Lim, a tour agent in Kuala Lumpur.

Some also remember Anwar's failed attempt in 2008 to entice 30 BN MPs to defect to the opposition and form the government.

Then came the Kajang Move. Anwar essentially forced out an elected ally so that he could contest. A state seat being a prerequisite to becoming menteri besar in Selangor, Malaysia's richest state and one of three controlled by PR.

The initial reaction from the public and political allies was shock. Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim is popular despite missteps, and some analysts saw Anwar's entry into Selangor as a way to defuse a growing feud between Khalid and PKR state chief Azmin Ali, a long-time Anwar ally. While the DAP has since rallied to support Anwar, PAS' influential ulama (clerics) wing and its leaders in Selangor remain sore.

As Abdul Kadir Jasin, the former group editor-in-chief of New Straits Times, said in his popular blog, The Scribe: "PKR leaders should stop making excuses for forcing the Kajang by-election. If they want Anwar as the new menteri besar of Selangor, just say so. If they want to solve the party's internal problem via a by-election, so be it."

As much as the by-election will be a gauge of the popularity of the Najib administration eight months after last May's general election, it is also a reading on the popularity of the opposition, and of Anwar. The state seat was won by PKR with a 6,800 majority, and Anwar will likely win it again hands down.

"Anwar is Pakatan's candidate for prime minister, and the move to raise his profile as a state leader before aiming for national leadership is a strategic move for this reason, in line with our overall strategy," MP Liew Chin Tong said in a statement Monday.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, businesses in Kajang, such as Sate Kajang Haji Samuri - the No. 1 satay brand in Malaysia - will likely emerge winners.

Burger seller Abdul Farik Noor said he expects to make a lot of money as crowds arrive for the hustings. Polling day is March 23. "It's not every day Anwar Ibrahim is contesting," the 40-year-old voter said in jest.


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