Time for PR to face real issues

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has been soaking up the spotlight since the court acquitted him of sodomy charges. When the euphoria wears off, however, he will find that he can no longer ride on public sympathy and will have to measure up in terms of real issues.

The “Datuk Trio” has also re-emerged to taunt Anwar. They have dared him to sue them over the sex video and have given notice that they may expose another sex video, this one purportedly filmed in a hotel room in Bangkok on Jan 12 and 13 last year. They have also challenged Anwar to produce his passport to show he was not in Bangkok on those dates.

Joceline Tan, The Star

BIG crowds have shown up at Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s ceramah roadshow since the courts acquitted him of sodomy charges.

The numbers that swarmed the open field in Alor Setar the evening after the Pakatan Rakyat Convention must have rattled quite a number of Barisan Nasional politicians.

The opposition coalition also pulled off a show of force in Gemas, Negri Sembilan several nights later. The NFC scandal has gone to PKR’s head and some of them have convinced themselves that they have a good chance in Negri Sembilan where the controversial cattle ranch is located.

January has been a huge, huge month for Anwar. He has not been this light-hearted in months and he has been soaking up the limelight.

For some time and especially after the sex video issue erupted, it had seemed like he was dancing on the head of a pin and you could see the pressure etched on his face when his guard was down. But he has cleared a crucial hurdle with the court verdict, notwithstanding that the Attorney-general has filed notice to appeal. A huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders.

The court decision, said academic and political analyst Dr Ong Kian Ming, has taken away some of the uncertainty about his future.

“Otherwise, the question of who is their PM designate would be directed at them at every stage of the campaign,” said Dr Ong.

In other words, Anwar is back in the running for the “Seventh Prime Minister of Malaysia,” to quote his loyal party No. 2 Azmin Ali.

Anwar on his part has been crowing at each ceramah that “we are on the way to Putrajaya.” But that is only one side of the story because the impact of the acquittal has been quite complex for both sides and in very different ways.

Anwar would have sensed by now that his vindication this time around did not draw the sort of elation that had greeted his release in 2004. Pakatan leaders welcomed the verdict but their response has been restrained, to say the least.

There has been no effusive proclamation of his innocence. Only his oldest and most loyal buddies from his Abim days have gone so far as to declare him innocent; a former Abim president Dr Muhammad Nur Manuty even went so far as to say that it was “a miracle.”

His detractors say that the Pakatan leaders are not blind to his weaknesses. His supporters insist it is because they had been caught off guard. They had expected a guilty verdict and were all prepared to launch a grand condemnation of the judiciary, the Barisan Government and the Prime Minister.

“If he had been convicted, they would have gone all over the country. The roadshows would have been more prominent. The acquittal took the wind out their sails, that’s the reality of politics,” said Dr Ong.

Anwar’s critics have described the big crowds at the post-acquittal ceramah as the “Elephant Man syndrome”, people seeking new thrills and excitement each time something new and curious happens to Anwar. They predict that the crowds will thin out after the sensation of his acquittal dies down.

Anwar is also about to find out that his audience here and abroad is beginning to look at him with a pinch of salt.

The recent comment piece in The Economist, said UKM’s leading academic Datuk Prof Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, is a signal of what lies ahead. Like many international publications, the British magazine had been critical of the trial from the start but its post-acquittal critique of Anwar’s leadership record and its assessment of PKR as family-controlled and riven by power struggles suggest that Anwar’s days as a political martyr is almost over.

“Anwar has cultivated friends in the foreign media. Their picture of Malaysia was coloured by Anwar, they have been ‘Anwarised’. But that is starting to change,” said Prof Shamsul.

Meanwhile, the Umno ground is still digesting the impact of the verdict. Umno’s right wing, in particular, is still fuming over what has happened. They were shocked and in disbelief that the courts should find in favour of Anwar because they are convinced that he is guilty.

This group thinks that those claiming a conspiracy against Anwar are so hungry for power that they are prepared to compromise their principles. They lauded Utusan Malaysia’s headline on the verdict – “Tak cukup bukti”. It reflected their sentiments that Anwar got off the hook not because the judge disbelieved Saiful, but because of questions over the DNA evidence.

Besides, those who had actually followed the proceedings claimed that Anwar failed to defend himself.

“He said he had 13 alibis, including Wan Azizah. What happened to them, why didn’t his wife take the stand? Instead, he gave a political ceramah from the dock,” said Kuala Terengganu Umno chief Datuk Wan Farid Wan Salleh.

Time to move on

The moderates in Umno are quite prepared to live with the verdict or, as Kota Belud MP Datuk Rahman Dahlan put it, it is time to “press the reset button” and move on. They are aware that the latest development has lifted Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s image internationally and at home, and given him a chance to focus on reclaiming the middle ground.

“A guilty verdict would have spelt bigger trouble for us. We would have had to deal with uglier and more confrontational politics. We accept the PM’s remark that this is proof that we do not meddle in the courts,” said Dr Faizal Tajuddin, an Umno politician from Pasir Salak.

This group is fed-up with the way national politics seemed to revolve around one man, his politics and his peccadillos. They know it is a new political landscape out there.

“Those still hankering after the good old days have to remember that an Arab Spring has happened in the Middle East. Australia and the UK are dealing with hung Parliaments and the opposition in Singapore won six parliamentary seats. So much has changed,” said Wan Farid.

Those determined to stop Anwar have renewed their campaign against him. For instance, the Jaringan Melayu Malaysia, a rabidly anti-Anwar NGO, demonstrated outside the Attorney-General’s office demanding that the Government appeal against the court decision.

Utusan has devoted entire broadsheet pages, playing up stories about Anwar, particularly after a BBC interview where he seemed to advocate a review of what he called “archaic laws” when asked whether he was prepared to take anti-discrimination as far as gay rights. Anwar’s detractors went to town with it and he is now suing Utusan for a lot of money.

“I have been asked about this many times by the foreign media. I told the Australian media recently that someone like Anwar will thrive in Australia but in Malaysia we have this thing called values, like we do not go into someone’s house with our shoes on,” said Shamsul.

Questions about Anwar’s private life is unlikely to go away any time soon.

For instance, the sex video featuring the man who resembles Anwar found its way into the mailboxes of MPSJ councillors shortly before the Chinese New Year break.

“I received two copies actually and I am wondering about the purpose of sending this to us. Are they trying to tell us that even if we may not believe it we should have a look?” said Tan Jo Hann, the NGO representative in the MPSJ.

This is the same video that US authorities had established as 99.99% authentic and the distributors are probably trying to drum home the message: Is this the man you want as your next Prime Minister?

The “Datuk Trio” has also re-emerged to taunt Anwar. They have dared him to sue them over the sex video and have given notice that they may expose another sex video, this one purportedly filmed in a hotel room in Bangkok on Jan 12 and 13 last year. They have also challenged Anwar to produce his passport to show he was not in Bangkok on those dates.

“The next election should not hinge on sex. The election is going to be decided by the fence-sitters and their chief concern is issues affecting the stomach,” said Tan.

Blogger-in-exile Raja Petra Kamarudin put it much more bluntly. He said the question in the mind of a large number of those voting in the next general election will be: “What’s in it for me?”

The paradox of Anwar has never been more stark. His acquittal restores his candidature for the top post. At the same time, he is no longer seen as the victim and that means one less issue for Pakatan to ride on.

Pakatan, said Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian, has to move beyond personal issues affecting Anwar.

“The big challenge is how to communicate with the Malay electorate. PAS and PKR have been unable to counter the Barisan’s control over rural Malay seats. They need to have answers to address the concerns of the rural Malay electorate and they have yet to do that,” he said.

Other immediate concerns, said Ibrahim, would be about touching base with the first-time voters and articulating the success stories of the Pakatan states.

“Those who are still undecided should be given the chance to decide based on substantive issues like cost of living and whether election promises have been fulfilled,” he added.

Not everyone, including those from within Umno, are in favour of another sex video making the rounds. Too much of a good thing can be bad, what more, too much of a bad thing.

Anwar’s strength more than a decade after his sacking from the Government remains his charismatic personality and crowd appeal. His problem is that over the last three years, his Pakatan partners have had a chance to see him up close and they know now his leadership abilities. The sodomy trial has been a terrible distraction and he has been inclined towards international travels rather than domestic issues.

Najib on the other hand has utilised the three years and 10 months he has been Prime Minister to great effect. He has not squandered his incumbency and has managed to capture the imagination of Malaysians even as his party, Umno, labours under an image problem. He is hard-working, smart and has shown that he understands the way the country and its people have changed. He has shown that he deserves to be up there.

“At the end of the day, Najib is not fighting Anwar. He is battling the urban inclination for change,” said a political insider.