The Edge, Feb 26, 2008, by Azam Aris
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
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.
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
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
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
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?
one, PKR says, Semangat 46 was a different political animal created
under different cir*****stances. Secondly, the times are changing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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)?
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
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
Khalid said race and religious-based issues, apart from among the Indians, will be less dominant in this election.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”