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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 15 — For Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his party PKR, a political crossroad is before them.
On one side, his once-closest ally and deputy Datuk Seri Azmin Ali has mounted a fractious challenge for dominance. Anwar has so far taken a conciliatory stance, a position analysts say is meant to avert a full-scale split.
But within the party ranks, there is growing pressure for the PKR president to toughen up. To them, Azmin’s action is blatant insubordination, and failure to act would send the wrong signal and be misconstrued as weakness.
So Anwar is now in a spot where he must choose between saving his party or his credibility. Either way, political analysts say both Anwar and PKR are unlikely to come out unscathed.
“I think the differences between the two camps have grown wider and have come out in the open since the weekend,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center polling firm.
“It is hard to gloss over the differences now. Overall the situation has reached a point where it shows cracks within PKR that will weaken the party moving forward.”
Last weekend saw the months-long simmering feud between Anwar and Azmin erupt into a full-scale war, as the PKR national congress became an avenue for Anwar’s followers to deride Azmin and his followers, who responded by walking out and later gathering at a separate event held on the same day Anwar concluded the meeting.
Azmin, estranged in his own party because of suspicion around his close ties with Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, said the walk-out was to protest the “concerted” attacks against him by Anwar and delegates aligned to the latter.
In his policy speech, the PKR president told the tale of si Kitol, a Malay folklore surrounding a turncoat who caused the collapse of the Melaka empire, believed to be a veiled reference to Azmin.
Delegates debating the president’s speech also took turns to chide the PKR deputy president, labelling him a traitor who is conspiring to usurp power.
Some cited the leaked secret meeting with Umno MPs that took place at Azmin’s residence last month as evidence of a plot to topple Anwar, while others pointed to absenteeism at party meetings as grounds for his sacking.
The allegation came on the back of rumours that the PKR deputy president is being groomed to succeed as prime minister, although Dr Mahathir has repeatedly assured that Anwar is next in line.
But with nearly half of PKR’s top leadership backing Azmin, sacking the deputy president would split the party beyond repair. Azmin is also said to have most PKR MPs behind him even if Anwar enjoys more support among PKR’s grassroots.
“Although Anwar’s faction may have a larger share of support within the party, it’s quite clear he no longer has full control of all the MPs within it,” Ibrahim said.
This may explain Anwar’s diplomatic response. In a recent statement, the PKR president appealed for an end to the infighting, and urged those with grouses to use the right channels.
Yet leaders like party vice-president Chang Lih Kang are adamant that any push for a truce must not tolerate open insubordination.
“Running a party needs discipline,” the PKR leader said.
“Everybody in the party desires peace and harmony so truce is possible. However, we can’t have truce at the expense of party discipline.”
But analysts feel any prospect for truce was dim, with the feud now at boiling point.
A day after Azmin stormed off from the party congress, he and several of PKR’s top leaders gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in the capital city, where a so-called appreciation dinner turned into open season against Anwar and his supporters.
There, Azmin unleashed invective after invective directly against Anwar, whom he labeled as disloyal, envious and cunning before some 2,000 supporters.
But most importantly the diatribe also revealed hints of Azmin’s political ambition.
In his speech, he stressed repeatedly that PKR belongs to no individual and anyone can lead the party, a message that appeared to challenge Anwar’s perceived supremacy.
However, he stopped short of saying he would challenge Anwar for the presidency.
Sivamurugan Pandian, political scientist with Universiti Sains Malaysia, said the revolt presents the first real acid test for Anwar and the 20 year old party’s ability to address crisis.
“Sacking (Azmin) will definitely break the party as he has strong grassroots and top leaders support as well,” he said.
“This could be an acid test for the PKR leadership and whether they are able to come out of it.”
Neutral party leaders like Chua Tian Chang, while optimistic about the prospect of peace, said both camps must work to find common ground to bridge their differences if PKR is to remain strong.
“Anwar needs a team to work with. Azmin and others were the team that built the party when DSAI was away,” he said.
“The two sides must recognize each other and find a common meeting point to cooperate.
“Otherwise it will be mutually destructive.”