In leadership void, Anwar still looms large over Pakatan

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s supporters hold a candlelight vigil outside the Sungai Buloh Prison in Kuala Lumpur February 11, 2015. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s supporters hold a candlelight vigil outside the Sungai Buloh Prison in Kuala Lumpur February 11, 2015. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

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COMMENTARY, Feb 15 — The past few days have been far from idle for Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) leaders who have been scurrying for meetings at various levels in the opposition bloc and within their respective component parties.

The incarceration of Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has made it necessary for the three-party pact to reevaluate their strategies, especially to take advantage of the expected swing in public sentiment in their favour.

For them, the message of alleged perversion of the judiciary must be sent out, rallies must be organised.

But most importantly, they must find a new leader to fill the void left by Anwar in the five years he will spend behind bars for what they maintain is a trumped-up sodomy charge.

Everyone — from the man on the street to their political opponents in the ruling Barisan Nasional — is waiting for PR’s presidential council to meet and flesh out the substantive issues concerning their very survival.

Who will be the next opposition leader? A cursory look brings up very few options.

First on the list is Anwar’s wife and PKR president, Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who was elected as Kajang assemblyman in a contentious by-election that exposed a fragile alliance among the three partners.

The so-called “Kajang Move” aimed to set her up as Selangor mentri besar to replace former PKR poster boy Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, but staunch opposition from her PAS counterpart Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and also the Sultan of Selangor led to the eventual appointment of her party deputy, Azmin Ali.

The very fact that she failed to gain the confidence of Abdul Hadi and the sultan leaves Dr Wan Azizah with little in terms of credibility to lead PR in Anwar’s stead, what more since many view her as a mere proxy for her charismatic husband.

And while she is a lawmaker, it is only at the state and not the parliamentary level, unless she stands for elections again for a federal seat.

It is possible she may go for the Permatang Pauh now under question with Anwar in jail and which Dr Wan Azizah had held for six years the last round, but the decision to field her will have to be a collective one by PR.

Which leads us to Abdul Hadi. While the senior politician seems to fit the mould of a potential prime minister-in-waiting - being a well-respected Malay personality - his tendency towards forging a possible alliance with arch-foe Umno has left a bad taste in the mouth for many within the opposition.

Add in PAS’ renewed push for hudud enforcement in Kelantan, and you have a recipe for a break-up of the nascent three-way partnership, especially since on-again, off-again “friends” DAP are not backing down from their push for secularisation.

The situation becomes even more untenable if PR were to look towards the predominantly Chinese DAP for a potential leader, due to the racial nature of Malaysian politics.

Party veteran Lim Kit Siang may be qualified in terms of experience, but because he is Chinese, the opposition would play directly into the hands of Umno’s racial posturing by appointing an ethnic minority to lead a coalition that hopes to take over the reins of the country.

And this leaves PR with its second-tier leaders. Let’s list out some potentials: Mohamad Sabu, Datuk Mustafa Ali and Khalid Samad from PAS, Azmin Ali, Nurul Izzah Anwar and Rafizi Ramli from PKR, and from DAP we could include Tony Pua, Liew Chin Tong and Anthony Loke.

All these leaders have their own following; they have put in the hard work and are respected enough to be considered important players in the country’s political arena.

But the glaring deficiency among them, and possibly the whole of PR, is simply that none of them possess the formidable charisma that made Anwar the obvious choice to get parties with such disparate agendas to work together.

The situation was framed succinctly by political scientist James Chin, who said that Anwar would remain PR’s political symbol “forever” and will continue to exert significant influence “as long as he lives, inside or outside prison”.

While this would mean that PR will continue to benefit from Anwar’s brand name even with the man behind bars, it also puts into stark focus the dearth of leaders who are ready to fill in his shoes in such an emergency.

It is a bitter pill to swallow, but one that the opposition pact needs to deal with before it can even hope to find a solution to the impasse that it now finds itself.

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