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In their first proxy confrontation, it is Dato' Seri Anwar 1 Pak Lah 0

THE PRIME MINISTER, DATO' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, got what he wanted in last month's general elections - his National Front (BN) decimated the opposition. But it turns out a pyrrhic victory. The BN won, that is all that matters. But that is not how it is viewed. The Election Commission changed the rules at will, breaking its own rules with impunity, electoral rules and voting hours changed at will, and ad hoc, which if its own rules are followed, vitiates the polls. Its chairman changes his version of what happened at every press conference that he himself suggested a royal commission to sort it out. Pak Lah would not agree. But the prime minister is an interested party, and he, with a vested interest in its outcome, should not decide; at the very least, all political parties should have been consulted. In Selangor, the least the EC could do is to order fresh elections. But it is powerless to order that.

As a result, Pak Lah sits atop an uneasy throne, the country divided as never before, more so than after the former deputy prime minister was sacked, arrested, beaten, humiliated and jailed. If this could have got the Malay ground to desert UMNO at the 1999 general election, this time it is not only more serious but this divide could well be permanent unless the BN drastically correct it. There is no hope of that. Especially when both the BN and PAS, in the opposition, miscalculated Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim's impact on the polls. Both lost ground, one culturally, the other at the polls. PAS all but ignored the Anwar impact, conducted a campaign without him. It lost ground badly. It still does not have the killer instict to take the BN head on, although it has a formidable election machinery. It should have rode on the Anwar affair, but it decided not to, and paid the price.

The BN, especially UMNO, insisted he was history, at least in public. It ignored the ground, that UMNO did itself a grave dishonour at bundling its prime minister-to-be to jail. UMNO insists the visible support groups for him declined sharply, and the Malay has returned to support UMNO. He did not. In private, Pak Lah had to destroy him politically once and for all, for his survival. But how he went about struck many as odd. He decided to confront him by proxy at Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim's old parliamentary constituency, Permatang Pauh, which his wife, Datin Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, had represented since his fall. His secret weapon was the former National Mosque imam, Dato' Pirdaus Ismail, 38, a 'hafiz', one who can recite the Quran from memory. If he was returned, he would be in the new cabinet as minister for Islamic affairs. Two birds with one stone. But only if it worked. It did not.

Pak Lah campaigned in the constituency four times during the eight-day campaign. So did several BN and UMNO leaders. There was only one thing wrong with the BN strategy: there was none. The candidate was flawed. He turned out to have a past, who refused to award a contract to an UMNO company because he refused a receipt for a bribe of RM30,000, reduced from RM50,000, in return for a contract to clean the walls of the National Mosque for a year. He was widely known in Permatang Pauh as 'Tok Imam Duit' and 'Tok Imam Rasuah', the imam for money and corruption respectively. The campaign went from bad to worse. Pak Lah was surrounded by cheering voters when he first arrived; he wound down his window, to be confronted by an unfurled large size portrait of Dato' Seri Anwar, and asked: 'Ingat dia?' (Remember him?). They were ruder with Ustaz Pirdaus: when he shook hands with him, they had five sen coins in their palms when they passed to him, an insult. Worse, when they mobbed his car al la Pak Lah, he wound down the windows and people threw coins into the car.

Datin Seri Wan Azizah was returned with a 33 vote majority after two recounts. A third the next day ensured it, but with a majority of 590 votes. The votes are stacked in tens, and the result got be counting the stacks. In her case, it was found that her stacks had more than ten votes, while her opponent had less than ten. By counting the stacks, one would get the total. A recount revealed this discrepancy. In other words, even with the odds against her, she won. Ustaz Pirdaus is not about to let go. He is to challenge it in court. So sure he is he would get his wish - lest we forget, he is, after all, Pak Lah's man - the BN and UMNO in Permatang Pauh is told to ready itself for fresh elections. But I do not see how there could be a re-election, without Pak Lah losing further ground. Even with the odds in his favour, he could not defeat his nemesis. If he does win, Pak Lah would not gain much honour from it. For in the first confrontation between him and Dato' Seri Anwar, albeit by proxy, he lost.

He would not gain much either if Ustaz Pirdaus did win. He cannot be the secret weapon Pak Lah has in mind. He shows too much interest in the temporal world. The accusation of corruption notwithstanding, hafizes are not that rare. Even in Malaysia., 12-year-olds can recite the Quran from memory. He could have found so many others instead, without Ustaz Pirdaus's disability. This is why PAS laughs him out of court. However much one genuflects to youth, in religious, long years of study is a requisite, and age is one attribute to religious study. Unless one is Jesus Christ or Gautama Buddhia or Sankaracharya. He is now co-opted into UMNO Youth. That was a mistake. His strength is, in Pak Lah's eyes, his religosity. What is then doing as a B-grade politician. A re-election in Permatang Pauh will not change the underlying concerns. Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim is still a force. UMNO ignores it at its peril.

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 18 April 2004

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