The Zahid-Anwar phone controversy: Betrayal of the highest order or democracy at work?

(MMO) – Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and his PKR counterpart Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim should relinquish their party positions to younger leaders who can rejuvenate Malaysian politics, two pundits said.

Kartini Aboo Talib @ Khalid from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Prof Dr Azmi Hassan from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) shared the same observation of discontent swelling within the ranks of Umno and PKR after a leaked audio conversation that though disputed, suggests Zahid and Anwar to be in a political conspiracy at odds with their disparate party ideologies.

According to Kartini, who is the deputy director of UKM’s Institute of Ethnic Studies, Zahid is under pressure from Umno grassroots to resign after a series of political manoeuvres that failed to return the Malay party to its eminent position before Election 2018.

She said that to the Umno grassroots, the 68-year-old Zahid had made many gaffes since taking over from Datuk Seri Najib Razak as president. Among them, a rumoured secret meeting with Anwar for a possible Umno-PKR alliance seen as a unilateral move even prior to the controversial phone call. But above all is his 87 money laundering and corruption charges, which have cast a shadow over the entire party by association.

“All these would make Umno members voice ‘enough is enough’,” she told Malay Mail when contacted.

Though not holding senior positions in the party, several high-profile Umno members have intimated as much.

“Many leaders believe Umno will lose if the president leads us to GE15. Isn’t it easier if the president steps down to save the party?” the party’s Simpang Renggam deputy division chief Datuk Onn Hafiz Ghazi was quoted as saying by Straits Times in an article last Wednesday.

Onn Hafiz, who is also a Johor state executive councillor and the great-grandson to Umno founder Datuk Sir Onn Jaafar, told the Singapore newspaper that “it is crucial for Umno… not to project the image that we have not learnt from the GE14 defeat in 2018”, alluding to the 1MDB scandal that dogged the party under Najib’s leadership.

Former Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin told the same newspaper in the April 13 article: “Many people in the party are very uncomfortable with the phone conversation purportedly between our party president and Anwar. I think Zahid’s position is increasingly untenable”.

Umno loyalist Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz has even suggested Zahid’s successor — the incumbent deputy Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, who at 64 is only four years younger than his president.

“Zahid needs to step down immediately. Mohamad Hasan as the No. 2 can take over the leadership. If there are warlords who disagree, that is their problem,” Nazri, the Padang Rengas MP, was quoted as saying in the same article.

Umno’s internal party elections are scheduled to be held in June.

Kartini said Anwar is in similar straits as Zahid.

“PKR members have to wake up and also allow Anwar to rest for good. One of the original missions of PKR is to free Anwar. That mission is achieved.

“Anwar should act as an adviser to PKR as the party has many more talented and potential young leaders to lead the nation,” she said, adding that the 73-year-old should encourage the younger members to contest the top party positions.

UTM geostrategist Prof Azmi Hassan said that what grassroots members of both Umno and PKR find puzzling is that their presidents would allow themselves to be caught in such a compromising situation.

The leaked audio recording uploaded on Facebook last week purported a more than friendly exchange between Anwar and Zahid following Umno’s 75th annual general meeting held last month. Both men were known to have been friends long ago in Umno but became estranged following Anwar’s sacking from the party and the government and his corruption and first sodomy trial in the late 1990s.

Zahid has rejected the recording as fake and an attempt to weaken and destroy Umno. Anwar has similarly called it slanderous and the latest ploy by “some elements in the government leadership” to damage inter-party ties within the Opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition ahead of GE15. However, the Opposition leader has since adopted an ambivalent attitude, asking if it mattered if the tapped phone conversation were genuine.

“It is going to be very difficult for Zahid even though he has denied it, but it will be difficult to explain to the Umno grassroots what are the circumstances that this [alleged phone call] had risen from,” Azmi told Malay Mail.

“On the other hand, PKR grassroots members are weary of the Umno leadership, particularly of the supposed ‘kleptocrats’,” he said, adding: “I think that is the reason why they do not want to work with Umno.”

The UTM academic explained that while Umno is a Malay-based party, PKR has styled itself multiracial and reform-based.

“I think that is the main reason why PKR members are quite wary of what is going on with their top leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim,” he said.

To Azmi, Umno grassroots, at worst, can still accept working with Bersatu but likely cannot imagine working with PKR as that would also mean teaming up with DAP.

But he does not rule out the possibility of an Umno-PKR tie-up for the elections. In fact, he said that should it ever come to pass, it could be very good for Malaysia politically.

“If they work together, based on GE14 results they can form a very stable government in terms of the number of majorities they will possess post GE15,” Azmi said.

Unlike Kartini and Azmi, analyst Oh Ei Sun held that the Anwar-Zahid phone controversy has helped shift Malaysia’s democratic conversations one notch up.

The senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs explained that Anwar and Zahid’s actions are part of the democratic process of building and forming political alliances.

“Anwar’s reaction to this is sufficient, and Zahid should also have a similar emission and this is a legitimate means of democracy politics of forming a different coalition in order to form a new government,” Oh said.

He also doesn’t view Zahid’s position within Umno as untenable now.

“I don’t think this would actually hurt Zahid as long as he can deliver Umno out of this first-hand painful experience of being in a coalition with Bersatu.

“His position is also quite safe despite opposition from within his own party,” he said.

To Oh, Umno members had a very general view that they were bullied by splinter Bersatu and simply wanted to stop being seen as “playing second fiddle”.