Crisis drives wedge in Kedah

The escalating conflict between Mentri Besar Datuk Azizan Abdul Razak and former State exco member Datuk Phahrolrazi Mohd Zawawi is rocking the PAS-led Government in Kedah to the core.

The PAS central leadership had supported Phahrolrazi’s first bid to oust Azizan last September after the latter suffered a heart attack and struggled to get back into shape. But they are highly uncomfortable with the second attempt because it is too close to the general election. They want Phahrolrazi to go along with the status quo until after the election.

Joceline Tan, The Star

A GREEN and white striped tent had been erected over the entrance to Datuk Phahrolrazi Mohd Zawawi’s house on the outskirts of Alor Setar. The annual dry season is still on up north and dead leaves littered the road outside his newly-renovated bungalow.

A small crowd of curious onlookers had gathered under the shade of several trees outside, chatting quietly among themselves. Inside the compound, dozens of media people and supporters of Phahrolrazi had turned up for what was to be a tell-all press conference by the man who had once been perceived as the next Mentri Besar of Kedah.

Phahrolrazi is chairman of the party’s Kuala Kedah division and his grassroots supporters were there for him in his moment of need.

Seated on his left was close ally and Bandar Baharu assemblyman Yaakob Husin and on his right were several ulama figures including Kedah Dewan Ulama chief Muhamad Abdullah, who cut a striking figure in his PAS style turban and sunglasses. Known as Shaikh Muhamad, he is a well-known sekolah pondok figure and he was there to lend Phahrolrazi a certain moral standing.

Personality clash: The two Kedah PAS leaders have not seen eye-to-eye from day one of PAS capturing the state but Azizan (right) is determined to hold on as Mentri Besar whereas Phahrolrazi (left) is adamant about challenging him. Shaikh Muhamad is seated right of Phahrolrazi.

Phahrolrazi’s political future is in the balance after his very public fallout with Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azizan Abdul Razak and which has split their party down the middle.

Phahrolrazi and another former exco member Dr Ismail Salleh are under immense pressure from his party’s central leadership to put aside their differences with Azizan and rejoin the State exco.

The party headquarters sent a mediation team comprising deputy president Mohamad Sabu, vice-president Salahuddin Ayob and assistant secretary-general Dr Syed Azman Syed Ahmad Nawawi to talk separately with Azizan and Phahrolrazi to persuade them to come to a compromise in order to end the political crisis in Kedah.

Salahuddin’s colleagues like to joke that he is PAS’ version of Kofi Anan, the former United Nations secretary-general. But the Kedah crisis is beginning to resemble the Middle East crisis and Salahuddin aka Kofi Annan returned to Kuala Lumpur empty-handed.

Despite the hype, Phahrolrazi did not spring any real surprises at his press conference. There was no tell-all, he was not desperate to return to the State exco and he openly admitted that he had not been getting along – tidak sebulu (not of the same feather) as he put it – with Azizan for some time.

“What is the point of being in the State exco if, out of 10 things, we cannot agree on six to seven things? How to be in the same organisation like this?” he said.

He also set conditions for his return to the State exco and speculation is rife as to what they are. Some think it is about power sharing – that while Azizan stays as Mentri Besar, he should surrender the Kedah PAS Commissioner post to someone else. Others suggested that Phahrolrazi is demanding a real say in the running of the State Government, which he thinks is operating below par under Azizan.

But party insiders in Kedah said Phahrolrazi’s faction is still insisting that Azizan is not fit for the job and should go on medical leave so that the team can take over and do a real job. It was hardly what one would term a compromise proposal.

Azizan’s supporters think that Phahrolrazi is power crazy and cannot wait to become the Mentri Besar. A large part of the problem also has to do with his supporters who are pushing him to fight back and to push Azizan off the stage.

What started as a personality clash seems to have spread to the division level. A great deal of it is being spearheaded by the Kuala Kedah division which is furious that their division chief has been sidelined by Azizan.

They are also angry that the No. 2 in their division, Datuk Amiruddin Hamzah, has opted to stand by Azizan. They feel he has betrayed the division and they want him to resign from the exco. But Amiruddin stood his ground, his reason being that the party should be focused on the general election rather than challenging the Mentri Besar.

With Phahrolrazi out of the picture, Amiruddin is now the top ranking exco member. He is now regarded as a potential Mentri Besar and that rankles those aligned with Phahrolrazi.

But there is growing sympathy in the party for Azizan. PAS politics has always been noted for its esprit de corps of putting the party over self and many think that Phahrolrazi does not have the party’s interest as his top priority.

The PAS central leadership had supported Phahrolrazi’s first bid to oust Azizan last September after the latter suffered a heart attack and struggled to get back into shape. But they are highly uncomfortable with the second attempt because it is too close to the general election. They want Phahrolrazi to go along with the status quo until after the election.

Many in PAS are quite stunned that Phahrolrazi is pursuing his cause with such determination. They are also amazed that his supporters are prepared to jeopardise the party’s polls prospects just to dislodge Azizan.

PAS ultras in Kedah complain that Azizan is too soft on Umno, treats Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad with kid gloves and has not introduced Islamic policies ala Kelantan.

His party folk were aghast when billboards bearing his portrait went up in parts of Kedah proclaiming that his Government supports the 1Malaysia concept. Recently, at a function in Sungai Tiang which has a large Thai community, Azizan was upset when the local Thai leader gave a speech blasting the Barisan Nasional.

Azizan knows that the Barisan has taken good care of the Thais in Kedah and his own speech was void of partisan politics. Instead, he told the Thais that he could see they have jobs and good homes and that they should invest in the education of their children.

He does not believe in making political speeches or attacking his opponents at State Government functions. Such incidents ruffle feathers in his party but they make it rather hard for his opponents to go for him in a personal way.

PAS and its partners in Kedah have 20 seats against Barisan Nasional’s 14 and one Independent. Azizan knows that with a mere six-seat majority, he cannot afford to frighten off the middle ground. But the hardcore PAS in the State are impatient to see the birth of an Islamic State and they do not appreciate his maverick style.

Hot issue

Just a month ago, a thinktank head had claimed that in Kedah, more people talk about the splits in Umno than problems in the State Government. He could not have been more wrong because the feud had been simmering for months by then; the fire is now hot enough to burn down the house and it is all that political circles in PAS can talk about.

All the drama and stress of the last few weeks is bound to take a toll on Azizan’s health. On Thursday, he turned up for a function in Gurun, looking somewhat unsteady on his feet and wearing sunglasses. He has one of those specially fitted sunglasses that he slips on over his prescription glasses when he is out in a bright place. His eyesight has deteriorated, he has to hold on to his bodyguard to move around and he looked frail and rather tired.

But he flashed a big smile at reporters trailing him in Gurun, telling them: “I am still around, you can see I am still breathing.”

It was a classic Azizan remark, a loaded comment aimed at his detractors and sort of telling them: Hello, I know you want my post but I am not dead yet, I am still alive and kicking, be patient, can or not?

Azizan has a sharp tongue and can be snappish when reporters are too persistent with their questions. He also has this tendency of making double-edged remarks or what the Malays call sindir (sarcastic insinuations).

But reporters have noticed that he has toned down that side of his personality. His comments are more modest these days and he has been switching up the charm meter when meeting the media.

However, he does not let anyone forget that he is still THE Mentri Besar. Azizan is a political animal who understands the power of incumbency and has used it well.

Phahrolrazi, on the other hand, reflects the best of both worlds. He comes from an ulama family and had worked in the private sector as an engineering consultant. He was, by most accounts, on the way to becoming the next Mentri Besar of Kedah – he is the party’s No. 2 in the State, he held the most important exco portfolio, he has grassroots support, the palace likes him and the Sultan, now the King, plays golf with him.

But, oh dear! He has shown such poor political judgement by trying to unseat Azizan for a second time in six months. His second attempt looked like a clumsy coup and he should have known that very few in his party would support such a divisive move at this crucial juncture.

If one has to sum him up, it would be that he has IQ (intelligence quotient) but very poor EQ (emotional intelligence). He has been cast as a poor team player and, worst of all, people in his party think his actions are beginning to resemble that of an Umno warlord.

At press time, the PAS central committee which had encamped to Alor Setar for a special meeting was still huddled down with the Kedah PAS leadership in an attempt to hammer out a compromise between the two men and their factions.

The central leadership has been forced to take charge of the conflict. They have to find a way out of the crisis or their Government will be shown the way out of Kedah.

“With God’s blessing, we will have the best settlement,” said central committee member Dr Syed Azman Syed Ahmad.