By Anil Netto
Aug 28, 2008
PENANG - Opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim's victory in a crucial by-election in the Permatang Pauh constituency in Penang on Tuesday has thrown wide open the political possibilities in the coming months. Standing under the banner of his People's Justice Party (PKR), he cruised to a 15,671-vote majority on the back of an over 80% turnout among 58,000 voters on the electoral rolls.
His majority surpassed the 13,388-vote majority of his wife and PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail in the March 8 general election. His showing was always going to be the benchmark as to whether Anwar could command enough public support for his bid to move "from Permatang Pauh to Putrajaya", the administrative capital of the country.
His attempt to use Permatang Pauh as a launch pad for his coalition to eventually wrest power from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition was one of the themes of the by-election that captured the imagination of many Malaysians hoping for democratic and economic reforms.
The by-election itself was dogged by the BN's exploitation of the sodomy charges against Anwar, which in the end did not make much headway among the voters of Permatang Pauh as Anwar captured two-thirds of the votes cast. He may also have succeeded in winning about 60-65% of votes from ethnic Malays in a constituency where the group makes up close to 70% of voters.
Chinese and Indian Malaysian voters in the constituency are also likely to have voted in droves for the PKR. Anwar has successfully forged a coalition among disparate opposition parties comprising his PKR, the multi-ethnic but Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamic party PAS.
The coalition - known as the People's Alliance (PR) - won 81 seats in the March 8 general election while the BN secured 140, thus depriving the ruling coalition of its coveted two-thirds parliamentary majority. The by-election was seen as a barometer as to whether support for the PR had risen since the general election.
It was also a gauge of public support for the BN after a sharp petrol price hike of 41% in June, though the price was reduced by 6% last week. For some time now, support for the ruling coalition has been eroding due to its slow pace of curbing corruption, its divisive race-based policies and its failure to introduce key reforms to institutions of democratic governance.
Such failures have resulted in the BN's declining moral legitimacy in recent years. The setback to the BN on March 8, when it secured just over half the popular vote, suggests that the erosion of its political legitimacy finally caught up with the decline in its moral legitimacy. Taken together, the BN has been on the defensive since then, unable to stem the erosion to its credibility, as reflected in the result of the by-election.
The highly anticipated by-election win thus gives added momentum to Anwar's bid to wrest power by Sept 16, as he has claimed he will do though parliamentary defections. The PR already controls five of 13 states in the federation. Still, it won't be easy to dislodge the ruling coalition, which has governed for close to 51 consecutive years.
Public relations strategists probably chose September 16, Malaysia Day, for symbolic reasons. That was the date in 1963 when the federation was formed with the merger of the Malaya peninsula, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore. (Singapore left the federation in 1965.) Anwar is hoping to lure parliamentarians from Sabah and from the United Malays National Organization in particular to defect from the BN.
He will now be sworn in as member of parliament on Thursday and the PR parliamentarians will select him as Parliamentary Opposition Leader. In his campaign speeches, he had said he wants to look Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in the eye when the premier presents his budget address in parliament at the end of the month.
The by-election campaign was in effect a de facto battle between Anwar, the man many believe to be prime minister-in-waiting, and Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, who under a transition plan is scheduled to succeed Abdullah in 2010. That remains to be seen as Najib's star may have faded somewhat after spearheading the BN's lackluster campaign for its candidate Arif Shah Omar Shah.
Anwar's campaign itself captured the imagination of many Malaysians with his twin promises to improve national unity and revive the listless economy. For the non-Malays, his call for a "Malaysian Economic Agenda" that would make the country more competitive globally carries with it the hope of a greater emphasis on meritocracy after years of race-based affirmative action policies favoring the Malays and other indigenous groups.
At the same time, he has been able to allay the fears of ethnic Malays that they would lose out if the economic playing field is leveled with minority Chinese and Indians. "I will defend the rights of the Malays, let there be no doubt about that, but we will also help the poor of all races if their need help whether they are Chinese, Indians or others," was his constant refrain throughout the campaign.
This approach has enabled Anwar to balance competing aspirations and concerns and build on his political campaign for Putrajaya. But he will first have to navigate past a mention in the courts on the sodomy charge on September 10 along with a new Anti-Corruption Agency investigation into an allegation brought up during the campaign by a former friend-turned-political foe.
Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.
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