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Anwar has upper hand, but still a long way to go - malaysiakini

Malaysiakini's report:

Since his failed attempt at forming the next government on September 16, 2008, Anwar Ibrahim has been strategically avoiding talk of setting another deadline to form the next government.

There is no question that his reputation took a hit when not even a single BN parliamentarian from a major component party crossed over to join his Pakatan Rakyat coalition. Having failed to win power through that avenue, there is another path to power that is open to Anwar, one that is more legitimate and sustainable.

anwar ibrahim parliament pc on budget and najib 131008 05It starts with the Kuala Terengganu by-election and then moves on to the Pensiangan by-election and then to a widely anticipated Sarawak state election before priming up for the next general election.

Anwar needs Pakatan to do well in each of these elections leading up to the next general election for symbolic as well as strategic reasons. By doing well, Anwar and Pakatan can send a very strong signal to voters as well as potential candidates and allies that it can hold on to the Malay ground and make inroads into the Dayak and Murut communities in Sarawak and Sabah respectively.

This will set the stage for a much stronger bid on the part of Pakatan to legitimately win a majority of parliamentary seats in the next general election and from there, form the next government.

Anwar has the advantage

Anwar’s advantage in each of these elections prior to the general election is that Pakatan will be on the offensive.

sarawak state seat 2006 breakdown 011208The BN not only has to defend its seats in the two by-elections (it is almost certain that Kurup’s appeal in Pensiangan will not go through) and the state of Sarawak, but they have to do so in a way which reflects that its popularity is not on the wane among these key constituents.

In other words, it will not be sufficient for the BN to retain the Kuala Terengganu parliamentary seat; it also needs to win it by a bigger margin than in 2008. Similarly, if the margin of defeat for Pakatan in Pensiangan is within striking distance, they can claim to have achieved a moral victory, a sign of things to come.

Finally, if Pakatan can deny BN a two-third majority in the Sarawak state elections, as is likely, it would deal a big psychological blow to the ruling coalition’s leadership in that state.

Furthermore, by doing well in Sabah and Sarawak, Anwar would be in a better position to attract disgruntled BN leaders from these two states to throw their lot in with the opposition.

One of the main obstacles Anwar faced in attracting BN MPs from these two states to cross over for his Sept 16 takeover scheme was that Pakatan’s electoral strength in Sabah and Sarawak was very weak.

This would change if Pakatan makes substantial headway in Sarawak and puts up a good fight in Pensiangan. It is very likely that more Dayak and Iban leaders such as Gabriel Adit Demong, the current independent Ngemah state assemblyperson and former vice-president of the now-defunct PBDS, would join the opposition if it manages to deny the BN a two-third majority in the next Sarawak state elections.

pensiangan sabah parliament seat 080908Fortunately for Anwar and Pakatan, the two upcoming by-elections both involve seats which are relatively marginal seats. Much has been made of the slim 628 vote majority obtained by the BN in Kuala Terengganu in the 2008 general elections.

Less has been made of the 608 vote majority won by Bernard Maraat, the PBRS candidate, in Pensiangan in the 2004 general election or that Joseph Kurup lost the parliamentary seat of Keningau (out of which the Pensiangan seat was created in the 2003 delimitation exercise) by 250 votes to Joseph Pairin Kitingan in 1999 when PBS was still in the opposition.

The potential for opposition mobilisation is clearly present in the Murut majority seat of Pensiangan. The challenge for Anwar and Pakatan is to translate this potential into actual votes for the opposition.

But significant challenges lie ahead

None of this means that Anwar and Pakatan will be able to sail into Putrajaya unhindered. On the contrary, Anwar faces significant challenges in his electoral path to power.

The recent public ‘spat’ between the DAP and PAS over the unresolved issue of implementing hudud law is but the tip of the iceberg. Anwar has yet to come up with a formal mechanism by which some of these fundamental disagreements within Pakatan can be discussed. His approach has been to maintain an ‘elegant silence’ on such matters and if this fails, try an ad-hoc fire-fighting approach to paper over such differences.

The differences within Pakatan do not only involve policy issues.

DAP and PKR are trying to compete over the same disgruntled Iban and Dayak ground in Sarawak. And it remains to be seen if Anwar can resolve the heated battles over seat allocation in Sarawak for the next state elections, battles which torpedoed the opposition’s chances of picking up a few more parliamentary seats in March 2008, most notably Stampin and Sibu.

Even in the seat of Pensiangan, there will likely be differences over the choice of the opposition candidate to contest against Joseph Kurup. Jeffrey Kitingan, PKR’s most senior leader in Sabah, would obviously want that seat but it remains to be seen if his popularity among Sabahans is still high (He lost the nearby Keningau parliamentary seat to his brother, Joseph Kitingan, by 4,264 votes in the March 2008 general elections).

Others within PKR may prefer the originally slated candidate, Danny Anthony Andipai, who filed the appeal against Kurup’s uncontested win in March. Yong Teck Lee might also want to throw his hat into the ring though that is probably a long-shot.

Khairy still thorn in Anwar’s side

Anwar and Pakatan cannot underestimate their opponents within the BN as well. Khairy Jamaluddin has shown that he is someone to be reckoned with, despite the March 8 setback, after his strategic ‘cornering’ of Husam Musa in their recent debate in Kelantan.

Without the distraction of a government position, Khairy can devote more of his time and resources towards political strategising. It is likely that Khairy will remain a thorn in Anwar and Pakatan’s side regardless of whether he wins the Umno Youth chief position in March next year.

Finally, Anwar and Pakatan cannot discount the fact that Najib will take steps to slowly but surely claw back some of the lost ground among Malay as well as non-Malay voters. Unlike his predecessor, Najib is a much more astute politician and will not stand idly by as Anwar and Pakatan plots the downfall of the BN. He will use the full array of instruments at his disposal as the new PM to re-establish the supremacy of the BN.

The electoral path to power for Anwar and Pakatan is visible but is chock full of potholes and obstacles. As good of a politician as Anwar is, he still has to depend on Lady Luck to shine on him. A BN slip up here and there, a BN defection here and here, compliance from his Pakatan partners here and there, and Anwar and Pakatan might actually make it.

ONG KIAN MING is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Duke University. He can be reached at -