By JOCELINE TAN
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has said the Permatang Pauh by-election is not about him but the nation. But it is very much about him and his bid to become Prime Minister and defend himself against sodomy charges now before the courts.
EVERYBODY who lives in Permatang Pauh knows of the warung at Kubang Semang’s most famous junction.
It is hard to miss. For a start, it sits in the shadow of the Mesjid Jamek Kubang Semang, which is frequented by PAS supporters and, secondly, there are all those political banners hung along the roads.
A giant PAS logo occupies a strategic spot at the junction while Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, looking rather rakish in aviator sunglasses, gazes down from a billboard, promising to bring down oil prices a day after he takes over the federal government.
A long banner pokes fun at Umno: “Hilang 5 negeri baru nak bersatu (Lose five states, then only you talk about unity).”
At the height of the Anwar sacking in 1998, this warung was the place to be if one wanted to hear all things bad and scurrilous about Umno and then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
It earned the humble warung a notorious reputation as an anti-government watering hole but it kept the owner happy all the way to the bank.
Now, 10 years later, Kubang Semang’s warung-at-the-junction is again a political nerve point, and political talk fills the air till the early hours of the morning.
The stage is set for Anwar to reclaim the constituency he had held for four terms before Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail took over.
Anwar, who turned 61 a week ago, is facing Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah, 52, of the Barisan Nasional and Angkatan Keadilan Insan Malaysia (Akim) president Hanafi Hamat.
Arif Shah needs little introduction. He is as well known for his sterling service record as he is for his shock of white hair and fluency in Mandarin and Penang-style Hokkien.
He is already a second-term assemblyman for Seberang Jaya and his plus point is that he will be a “live-in wakil rakyat”, unlike his predecessor who lives in Kuala Lumpur.
He is daring, energetic and quick-thinking and will be unfazed by Anwar's glittering persona.
Anwar’s accuser Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan’s sensational swearing on the Quran is bound to affect the PKR campaign.
But the fact remains that Anwar and his wife have, between them, controlled the seat for a total of 26 years.
It explains why the Barisan is fighting this by-election as the underdog.
But Anwar is not going to get it without an all-out fight from Umno if the non-stop hustle and bustle at the nearby Umno division headquarters is any indication.
The lights at the multi-storey headquarters have been burning through the night since the by-election dates were set while Mus Corner, the warung across the road, has been doing roaring business.
Umno supporters in the area work through the night and walk around like zombies in the day because of lack of sleep.
“Everyone is writing us off but we are going to give them the fight of their life,” said an Umno division leader from Penang.
Some Umno politicians are still talking rather tentatively of a fighting chance but the more realistic ones speak of reducing the 13,398-vote majority secured by Dr Wan Azizah in March.
“The situation is not that terrible,” said an aide to the Prime Minister.
Of the 50,000 or so voters, about 20,000 are members of coalition parties in the Barisan. If these members support the Barisan candidate, then PKR would have to struggle to maintain its margin of win.
That was more or less the voting pattern on March 8. The voters gave Barisan’s Datuk Pirdaus Ismail 16,950 votes and Dr Wan Azizah 30,348.
Barisan’s plan is to get all of its party members, whether Umno, MCA, Gerakan or MIC, to come out and vote for its candidate on Aug 26.
Up to Saiful’s action on Friday, Anwar had looked quite unstoppable, like some sort of Michael Phelps of Permatang Pauh.
His Chinese supporters have even produced banners with the Beijing Olympic slogan “One World, One Dream”, all written in Chinese characters and showing Anwar looking handsome, young and definitely airbrushed. The banners are in bright red, a colour considered ong or lucky among the Chinese.
“We will win. Our challenge is getting a better majority, something near Anwar’s old record of 23,000 votes would be good,” said Anwar loyalist Ramli Bulat.
Ramli was the PKR candidate in the Seberang Jaya state seat in March. Had he won, he might have been Deputy Chief Minister.
He is typical of many Malays who make up the PKR. He followed Anwar out of Umno into PKR. When he heard of Anwar’s release in 2004, he rushed to Kuala Lumpur although he was still recovering from a heart by-pass.
Permatang Pauh, which means “plain of mangoes”, is part of Penang’s Malay heartland. With 69% Malays, 27% Chinese and 7% Indians, it is almost a microcosm of the national demographic profile.
The sprawling constituency is bigger than it appears and the scenery ranges from the urbanised Seberang Jaya township to rustic countryside marked by padi fields and remote Malay kampung where one’s mobile phone signal starts to fade out.
And like it or not, Anwar’s long years of politics in the area and his clout as the then deputy prime minister mean that his footprints are to be found all over Permatang Pauh.
It was during his time that Seberang Jaya boomed as a commercial centre, low-cost housing mushroomed and institutions like UiTM and the polytechnic came in.
“Anwar brought a lot of changes,” said Ramli.
Even Umno’s Permatang Pauh headquarters was built in his time and his rich businessmen friends helped build the many mosques that rise over the flat landscape.
As such, the Barisan will find itself fighting someone who has a pretty solid track record even though most of it was achieved when he was with the mighty Barisan.
For the Barisan, this by-election is primarily about putting the brakes on Anwar and to prevent him from realising his ambition to be Prime Minister.
In short, it is about the Barisan staying in power. That should provide sufficient incentive and motivation for Barisan parties to go all out.
The conventional wisdom is that most voters have made up their minds about who they will be voting for.
The constituency is said to have a much smaller group of fence sitters than elsewhere because the battle lines have grown quite defined in the years following Anwar’s fall from grace.
“The Chinese are not as crazy about politics as Malays but they always know what they want,” said Ramli.
And given the Indian and Chinese disenchantment with the Barisan, it is the Malay vote that will be assiduously courted and Malay issues will dominate the campaign.
But one thing is clear even at this early stage in the campaign. PKR ceramahs are drawing out the younger crowd who previously could not be bothered about politics. Young people in their 30s and couples with babies and toddlers dominate at such gatherings.
The crowd at one rally several nights before nomination was so big that one reporter said they looked like “an army of ants”.
Anwar told a gathering that the by-election “is not about me, but the nation”.
Actually, it is very much about him. It is about his bid to form the federal government, to become Prime Minister and to challenge the charges of sodomy now before the courts.
Issues like good governance, poverty eradication, corruption and rising costs of living will be secondary to more emotional matters surrounding Anwar’s personal and political survival.
His supporters would like to see the by-election as some form of redemption for him since they have never accepted his sacking as deputy prime minister.
Five months ago, the Barisan had gone into the general election as the ruling party in Penang. Today, it is the opposition facing the de facto leader of the ruling Pakatan Rakyat.
But it still boasts a powerful campaign machinery, and it will have the advantage of the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and a host of ministers on the campaign trail.
The mother of all by-elections has begun.