The lull before the frenzy: This was the scene when I dropped by at Permatang Pauh the day after Wan Azizah stepped down as MP to make way for Anwar
The semi-urban town of Permatang Pauh is gearing up for a what could be a pivotal by-election that could influence the direction of events in coming months.
The political situation is in a state of flux as the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat enter a crucial phase that could determine the direction of the country.
In the foreground are the high-stakes allegations – the sodomy complaint and the Altantuya murder. In the backdrop, the equally high-stakes political battle between the leaders of the rival coalitions.
The road blocks in KL and the bizarre way Anwar Ibrahim was arrested recently – and then released – did not help soothe frayed nerves. The big question now is will he be arrested again and charged before the by-election?
There are a couple of crucial differences between reformasi in 1998 and now though. Back then, Anwar’s arrest galvanised the reformasi movement. That fledgling movement was temporarily deflated when its nemesis, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, stepped down in favour of Dato Seri Abdullah Badawi, who promised reforms and then led the Barisan Nasional to a landslide victory in 2004.
This time around, Anwar’s predicament comes after Makkal Sakthi and the March 8 ‘political tsunami’. The stakes are now much higher. The PR leaders have indicated that they intend to take over the federal government by Sept 16 – although so far, they have little to show in terms of defections.
The other difference between 1998 and now is that we are dealing with a politically more mature public, with greater access to alternative news, scrutinising every move by the main protagonists.
There is also a sense that many Malaysians have grown tired of racial politicking (though of course a significant remnant are not averse to being manipulated by race-based politics). They also seem to be tiring of the sordid allegations and counter allegations. That said, many still want the truth – including what happened to Balasubramaniam, the private investigator who dropped a bombshell, and why Saiful’s police report has not yet been revealed.
Umno itself is clouded with uncertainty. Some observers perceive that the party – and by extension, the country – lacks strong leadership. But Abdullah has shown that he can outwit his rivals – and hang on to power, despite the major setback to the BN on March 8. To his credit, he has so far resisted the temptation to swoop down on critics and dissidents. But his approval rating has now plunged to 42 per cent – and as they say, desperate times may lead to desperate measures.
All eyes are also looking ahead to the Umno elections in December to see if anyone will challenge the party president despite the transition scheme stitched out between Abdullah and Najib. Already we can see some signs of trouble in the ranks.
For now though the attention of most Malaysians will be riveted on Permatang Pauh for what could be a pivotal by-election.
But while the politicians – and Malaysians – are distracted, economic conditions are deteriorating. There is a sense of foreboding over the future with 59 per cent in a recent poll by the Merdeka Centre feeling that economic problems are the biggest issue facing the country. The oil price hike has eroded local purchasing power, curbed consumer spending, and sparked a run of inflation, dampening business sentiment. Soaring inflation is likely to be a big issue among the working class in Permatang Pauh.
That’s not all. Professor of Economics at the NYU Stern School of Business Nouriel Roubini says the United States is facing its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and will undergo its deepest recession in recent decades. He predicts a dozen major economies will be hit hard while the rest of the world will experience a severe growth slowdown. Malaysia is hardly likely to be spared the pain.
Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to get bumpy.