Can Wan Azizah become Prime Minister?

Her timely ascension could be Pakatan’s hidden weapon

Liew Chin Tong, FMT

Looking at the Court of Appeal’s decision in Anwar Ibrahim’s Sodomy II case on March 7, 2014, it could a bellwether of the political scenario in the next few years. In reversing the ‘not guilty’ verdict, the court effectively barred Anwar from contesting in the Kajang by-election, and likely the next general election.

How will this affect Pakatan Rakyat’s bid for federal government, will it be sped up or delayed? Will Umno’s move to jail Anwar indirectly push Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, affectionately known to her supporters as Kak Wan, to the forefront to emerge as a potential Prime Ministerial candidate in the future?

Najib’s government appointed Umno lawyer Shafee Abdullah as the prosecutor in Sodomy II, then rushed the appeal and the sentencing process with unholy haste.

The motive was clear: to prevent Anwar from contesting in the Kajang by-election and to scuttle his chances of becoming Menteri Besar of Selangor.

Why is Umno worried about Anwar becoming a Menteri Besar? Umno and in particular, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s faction, were worried that if Anwar took over as MB, it would strengthen Malay voters’ confidence in him as a Prime Minister in waiting.

Although the MB position is not that powerful in Malaysia’s rather centralised federal system, it carries the title of “Yang Amat Berhormat”, a title shared with the Prime Minister. As such, it carries almost equal weightage in terms of prestige in the eyes of Malay society. This scenario was certainly not favorable for Mahathir and his ilk.

If Anwar fails in his appeal to the Federal Court, he will be jailed. If this happens within three years from the first sitting of the 13th Parliament, we will have to face a by-election in Permatang Pauh.

Umno strategists believe that jailing Anwar would lead to Pakatan’s downfall, repeating the disintegration of Barisan Alternatif in 2001. Of course, that is what Umno-BN wants, so that it could continue in power forever.

But there could be other scenarios arising if Anwar is jailed.

New political momentum

Firstly, it will prove that there is no hope to reform from within (the government). On Sept 2, 2004, the Federal Court ended Anwar’s six year incarceration. He had been removed as Deputy Prime Minister on Sept 2, 2004 and arrested on Sept 20 of the same year.

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s popularity as Prime Minister soared when Anwar was freed. Abdullah who, like Anwar, hails from Penang, was seen as a rival to Anwar during their time in Umno.

Abdullah stole the reform agenda when he took power in 2003, riding it to achieve great victory in the 2004 election.

During the era of Anwar in government and the early days of Abdullah’s rule, people were hopeful that Umno and BN could reform itself. Najib, too, tried to portray himself as a reformist through various transformation projects.

The Anwar verdict on March 7 returns Malaysia to a pre-1998 state where it is crystal clear that reform within the context of this system is all but impossible. The only way to reform our national institutions is to get rid of Umno-BN.

Secondly, it reinforces the limitations of holding on to state government. In the 2008 and 2013 general elections, overall popular votes were split 50-50 between BN and Pakatan, signalling the birth of a two party system in Malaysia.

Yet, Umno rule became increasingly authoritarian, power continues to be concentrated in the hands of the federal government and in particular, the Prime Minister’s Department.

The 2008 political tsunami allowed Pakatan to form state governments and use their performance as ammunition to pressure BN at the federal level.

The end goal of fielding Anwar for Kajang was to broaden the impact of the Selangor state government to the federal government.

The very thought of Anwar possibly becoming MB so threatened Mahathir that he ordered immediate steps to be taken to prevent it from happening.

The 2008 strategy of “surrounding federal power with state power” seems to have run its course. Now, it seems like removing the federal government is the only way out.

The battlefield has now shifted to the people’s power, to build new political momentum by mobilising the people’s passion, a national pursuit of democratization.