Parti Keadilan Nasional leaders used to deny that their party was all about Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim but they say now they are not going to be apologetic about making their national advisor their central campaign issue in the general election, writes JOCELINE TAN.
SIZE does matter in politics, if the dispute over Parti Keadilan Nasional’s rally in Cherok Tok Kun, Seberang Perai, last weekend can be taken as an indication.
The rally, billed as the Gathering of 100,000, fell far below the advertised target – and that was when the hair splitting began. When media reports placed the crowd size at about 5,000, some Keadilan leaders accused the media of distortion and insisted that up to 30,000 people turned up.
But as pro-Keadilan webmaster Raja Petra Kamarudin pointed out, the compound around the “White House,” as the white-washed and colonnaded family home of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is known, could accommodate at most 10,000 people.
And when the event kicked off in the early afternoon, there was indeed only a crowd of some 500 which grew as evening descended.
Politics is often described as a numbers game and with the general election looming Keadilan leaders had hoped that last Saturday’s gathering would help them recapture the soaring mood and support of the mammoth demonstration along the Kesas Highway in November 1999.
The police issued a permit, the weather was beautiful and there were free drinks but four years down the road, a great deal of the heat and fury that had preceded the formation of Keadilan has evaporated. The mass support that had made Keadilan such a potent presence in the 1999 polls has gradually whittled down to a core of die-hard supporters.
Said a Penang journalist: “Two Rayas ago, we could hardly move when we came for the open house. The crowd was massive. Last Raya, we even had time to help ourselves to the drinks and fruits.”
Last Saturday’s gathering was, technically, organised by the Free Anwar Campaign (FAC), a parallel arm of Keadilan. The FAC was set up with the expressed purpose of campaigning for the cause of party advisor Anwar because party leaders were then sensitive to charges that the party was all about one man.
Their stand was that the party did not revolve around Anwar but was the vehicle for political and institutional reform. As such, they were anxious to separate the cause of the party from that of its jailed advisor.
But all that is about to change as Keadilan prepares to face its second general election.
According to vice-president Azmin Ali, Anwar will be the central issue for Keadilan in the polls.
“We’re not going to be apologetic about it, Anwar will take centre-stage this time,” said Azmin, his voice still hoarse from a hectic week of ceramah.
He said Anwar would be projected as a figure of reform and a leader of vision and ideas. The party will not dwell on the “black eye” issue but intends to highlight his state of health and the issue of his being denied bail by the courts – or what Raja Petra called a “repackaging of issues.”
Why the shift in strategy?
One reason is that many of the red-hot issues that used to be the purview of the opposition parties are now being addressed by the Prime Minister.
Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has come down hard on corrupt practices, a special commission is looking into issues concerning the police and he has shown renewed respect for the institutions.
The opposition parties have been pre-empted by Abdullah’s leadership style on a number of fronts.
Keadilan is also coming to terms with the fact that splinter parties seldom have the stamina or ideology to last through the long term.
Another reason is Keadilan’s rather dishevelled party machinery. Some say its ground organisation becomes hazier the further one moves outside of Selangor and the Federal Territory.
For instance, the official reason for its annual general meeting being postponed for the second time last December was that the general election was too close. The real reason, according to party sources, was that they were not sure of getting a sufficient quorum.
As a result, the party is resorting to an issue that had worked for them in 1999 and which they hope will continue to have an impact.
Party leaders are already laying the ground for a new campaign.
Some 10 political figures spoke in Cherok Tok Kun on Saturday evening and every single one of them focused on Anwar and, inevitably, the man whom they deem responsible for his current situation – Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Even Saifuddin Nasution, the Keadilan assemblyman who is rumoured to be on the verge of rejoining Umno, gave a fiery speech that centred on Anwar.
Saifuddin seemed peeved about speculation regarding his loyalty, insisting that “nobody has approached me” and that he was staying put in Keadilan because “Umno is beyond repair.”
Dr Mahathir is still a contentious personality for the opposition although they are less sure about how to tackle his successor who has turned out to be much more savvy than they had expected.
It is difficult to gauge the support enjoyed by Keadilan at this point in time. The party has a presence in the Klang Valley and to some extent in Perak and Penang.
But there is certainly some degree of sympathy for what Anwar and his family have gone through, especially his protracted court trials, and the party hopes to capitalise on that.
Still, the focus on Anwar and what he is said to stand for is not without its own complications.
First, Anwar was very much part of the system that Keadilan is so critical of. In fact, it was during Anwar’s all-out quest for the Umno deputy president's post in 1993 that the term “money politics” acquired household currency.
As such, the notion of Anwar as a figure of reform is somewhat difficult to swallow.
There is also the question of how Parti Rakyat Malaysia members, who will be working together as one entity with Keadilan this election, will accept the idea of such a campaign theme.
Although PRM members have agreed to merge with Keadilan, not all of them have warmed to the idea of embracing Anwar as the central focus. Others recognise the need for political expediency.
But as PRM deputy president Rustam A. Sani said: “We have to be clear that it’s not just about Anwar the person but what he stands for.”
To be fair to Keadilan, it has not been a level playing field for them. Many of their key leaders were detained at about the time when the party was trying to get organised. More recently, they have been embarrassed by defections, some of them well-known names.
More trouble broke out in the ranks this week when former Youth secretary Lokman Noor Adam was sacked.
The party is also said to be hampered by lack of funds.
There was a party struggle of sorts last year when the ex-Umno group in the party sidelined the Abim faction to take control. It caused a great deal of bitterness among the Abim group which had been the driving force behind the setting up of Keadilan.
The situation in Keadilan today has to do, too, with the leadership of Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail who has been unable to move beyond her image as a figurehead president.
Keadilan people need her at the top because she is such a potent reminder of Anwar. But the price for that is to endure the fact that she is ill-suited for politics, let alone political leadership.
“The failed leadership has allowed leaders at the mid-level to do as they please, sidelining people as they wish,” said Dr Abdul Manaf Che Ismail, a Keadilan member from Terengganu.
The medical doctor was an early supporter who was so drawn to the reformasi campaign that he even named his newborn daughter (now four) Azizah, while his accountant brother named his son Anwar.
His unhappiness has to do with the party leadership's inability to resolve the problem of party warlordism in Terengganu.
“The party is in shambles here. She did nothing about our complaints,” said Dr Abdul Manaf.
Despite his disillusionment, he has no regrets about his daughter's name.
“As a leader, Wan Azizah has been a disappointment but she has been an exemplary wife and mother,” said Dr Manaf.
It sums up Wan Azizah’s leadership – her strength lies in being herself but that is not good enough for a party that has had to run uphill from the day it was formed.
This general election is being seen as largely a battle between Umno and PAS because Umno politicians see Keadilan as a spent force.
It isn’t yet, but if it does not do well in the polls, a spent force it will be.