PKR’s watershed election
Date: Tuesday, February 26 @ 08:42:04 CST
Topic: National: Politics

The Edge, Feb 26, 2008, by Azam Aris
THE 2008 polls will be Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s (PKR) watershed election. A good performance will give party leaders the encouragement needed for it to forge ahead and expand PKR as the platform of a truly multiracial party at the national level. But at the same time a sound defeat in parliament and state assemblies plus a reduction in popular votes could spell the end of the party. Many political observers feel PKR’s fate will be as simple as that.

Khalid. Photo by Lee Lay Kin To its opponents, a badly defeated PKR would just go the Semangat 46 way — a new party that emerged in 1989 but lasted only two elections, and was consequently dissolved in 1996. But proponents of PKR think otherwise; even if it loses badly, it is here to stay and will not fade away as the country’s race-based political landscape is beginning to change to one which is getting less race averse. Mono-ethnic parties or coalition like Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) will gradually give way to multiracial parties as political awareness increases as the country develops and modernise further. Increase in household income for every community will help erode the influence of race-based issues on the voters, while the expansion of broadband infrastructure throughout the nation within the next five years will allow Opposition parties more media space to articulate their vision and aspirations. Dr Mahathir. Photo by Kenny Yap The Internet will be the “mainstream newspapers and television channels” of tomorrow. Because of these impending developments, they believe PKR has the potential in the long term to morph into an effective national multiracial party. Opponents, meanwhile, scorn at such idealistic dream and that the issue of a national multiracial party is as old as the nation’s independence. It will not get much support and will die a natural death. This is a country where race-based politics is well entrenched even among the educated, middle class and the politically conscious voters. Tengku Razaleigh. Photo by Kenny Yap Many will not buy the idea of changing the political status quo of Malay dominance which could affect the country’s stability and power-sharing system. Why fix it, if it ain’t broke? Why then shouldn’t PKR go down the Semangat 46 way? For one, PKR says, Semangat 46 was a different political animal created under different cir*****stances. Secondly, the times are changing. Semangat 46 was born out of rivalry between the then Umno president Tun Dr Mahathir Mohmad and his challenger Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, which saw Umno split into Team A and B. Dr Mahathir narrowly defeated Tengku Razaleigh by 43 votes in the 1987 party presidential election, but the party plunged into a crisis when 11 members who were dissatisfied with the results took the party to court. The outcome of the legal suit in 1988 saw the High Court declaring the party illegal. Dr Mahathir set up Umno Baru, but not all opted to become members. Tengku Razaleigh then registered Parti Melayu Semangat 46 in May 1989 which saw Umno top guns from Team B like Datuk Rais Yatim, Datuk Radzi Sheikh Ahmad, Datuk Zainal Abidin Zin, Datuk Manan Othman, Datuk Suhaimi Kamaruddin, Datuk Ibrahim Ali, Datin Paduka Rahmah Othman and Marina Yusof joining the party. However, other key members of Team B notably Tun Musa Hitam, Datuk Shahrir Samad and current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi decided to remain in Umno. In essence, Semangat 46 was an Umno splinter group. It then forged an alliance with PAS and two smaller parties Hamin and Berjasa to form a loose coalition Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah (APU). APU’s onslaught in the 1990 general election saw BN defeated badly in Kelantan losing all 39 states and 13 parliamentary seats. Semangat 46 also had eight representatives in Parliament. PAS and Semangat 46 retained Kelantan in 1995 but by then there was already serious strain in their relationship. A year later, PAS ended its seven-year relationship with Semangat 46, which had by then taken steps to renew it links with Umno under the pretext of strengthening Malay unity. Rais who famously declared that he “had burned the bridge with Umno,” went on to say that what he meant was “just a political metaphor” and that the party was more interested in constructing the “Malay unity bridge.” Dr Mahathir and Tengku Razaleigh made their peace, and Semangat 46 in an extraordinary general meeting in May 1996 dissolved the party, paving the way for its 400,000 members to join Umno en bloc. It became the first political party in Malaysian history to be dissolved voluntarily through the process of law. For Semangat 46, joining Umno was a homecoming of sorts. PKR was born out of political rivalry of a different kind. Dr Mahathir sacked his deputy Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from Umno and the Cabinet in September 1998 for alleged sexual misconduct. Anwar alleged it was a political conspiracy of the highest order. Arrested by the police, Anwar was put on trial, denied bail for what was a bailable offence and found guilty of corruption. Earlier while in police custody, the deputy prime minister was assaulted by the Inspector-General of Police. Angry protesters took to the streets and Anwar’s black eye became the symbol of the reformasi movement, which led to the birth of Pergerakan Keadilan Sosial (Adil) headed by his wife Datin Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. While sympathising with Anwar and his family, there was no exodus from Umno this time and the bulk of his supporters remained in the party. Among those small groups of supporters who quit or were sacked from Umno, some joined Adil while others opted to join PAS. Outside the political world, Anwar’s support mostly, instantaneously, came from the apolitical masses and a motley mix of professionals, lawyers, academicians, corporate people, human rights groups, activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This gave Adil the multiracial face from the start. With its members comprising different segments of the society and lacking in the number of ex-Umno members, there would not likely be an en bloc homecoming ala Semangat 46. Facing difficulties in registering Adil as a political party, the reformasi movement took over a small party Ikatan Masyarakat Islam Malaysia and launched Parti Keadilan Nasional in April 1999, just in time to face the general election. It performed creditably in its debut by winning 12% of the popular vote and garnered five parliamentary and four state seats. And because of the swing in Malay voter sentiment against Dr Mahathir and Umno, PAS recorded their best ever performance, gaining 15% of the popular votes, winning 27 parliamentary seats, sweeping all seats in Kelantan and making big inroads in Kedah and Terengganu. At the same time, it had opened a new frontier in Selangor and Pahang — two states which it hardly had any strong presence before. To strengthen the party and the reformasi movement further, Adil and the socialist background Parti Rakyat Malaysia merged and launched PKR in August 2003. With Dr Mahathir retiring at the end of the same year, taking most of Anwar’s reformasi sentiment with him and Abdullah promising to be the prime minister for all Malaysians, fighting corruption and bringing more openness and tolerance in his administration, PKR nearly lost the ground it gained as a political party in the 2004 election. It still managed to get 8% of the popular vote but in the first past the post system — where a single vote majority is enough to win a seat — this does not count for much. What matters most is winning seats and the fact was that in 2004, PKR won only a single parliamentary seat in Permatang Pauh where party president Wan Azizah stood. Another poor performance like that, opponents say, will surely sound the death knell for PKR. But can it stop the tide come March 8? Can PKR’s prominent candidates like Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim win in the Bandar Tun Razak parliamentary and Ijok state seat? How about other party stalwarts like Dr Lee Boon Chye in Gopeng, Sivarasa Rasiah (Subang), Azmin Ali (Gombak), Tian Chua (Batu) and Saifuddin Nasution (Machang)? PKR secretary-general Khalid believes the party can perform better than 2004 especially with de facto party leader Anwar now spearheading the campaign. Freed from jailed in September 2004, after the Federal Court upheld his appeal against conviction for sodomy, Anwar is still a charismatic leader and has made PKR into a better-organised political party. “Anwar has the respect of the DAP and PAS. He has managed to strengthen cooperation among the Opposition,” adds Khalid. Not eligible to contest before April, due to his conviction on corruption charges, is a blessing in disguise as it allows Anwar to campaign for the opposition nationwide. Khalid said race and religious-based issues, apart from among the Indians, will be less dominant in this election. Issues like inflation, the impact of the shrinking purchasing power, the fight against rising crimes, corruption, urban and rural poverty, minimum wage, better education system notably in public universities, unemployment and unemployed graduates, illegal immigrants and foreign workers, improved housing and public amenities and transportation, a just government, confidence in the judiciary, protecting fundamental liberty, the right to assemble, freer press and cleaner environment — cut across racial barriers. More voters will become discerning of these issues as urbanisation, which normally comes with higher income, better infrastructure and higher standards of living for the population, rapidly expand throughout the country. In 2000, 62% of the population lived in urban areas and this is expected to increase to 73% by 2020. “Urbanisation and the power of the Internet will make it difficult for political parties to compartmentalise issues according to race and religion. Can the BN continue to group themselves in perfect boxes and have this mentality that certain racial issues cannot be discussed by other component parties? We think not. More and more Malaysians will see national issues beyond race,” he said. The challenge for PKR is to make itself relevant and attractive to this group of people. In Anwar, they have a battle hardened politician, who has spent eight years of his political and activist life in incarceration. Anwar can lead PKR to be a more relevant national multiracial party but it has to organise itself better, expand its grassroots support and networks; and at the same time attract more professionals and the younger generation to believe in its cause. Says an observer: “Political parties need to be run by career politicians and not one that is dominated by some idealistic non-governmental organisations or individuals. Their survival and relevancy very much depend on this. And PKR is no exception.”

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