Sunday, March 08, 2009

Joceline Tan: A year of dramatic politics

by Joceline Tan

The country has been in a state of constant politics since the March 8 tsunami and the contest over its political future is still taking place.

A YEAR has gone by since the March 8, 2008 general election but for many politicians, it was as though the campaign never quite ended.

It has been politics and more politics; or as one editor put it, “we are overcooked by politics”.

Some have likened the on-going politicking to a soap opera, sometimes heartening, at times tragic; occasionally entertaining, mostly tiresome. And it also seems to go on in unending episodes.

But the problem is that all of this is not fictional but real-life drama that affects people’s lives and future.

One keeps hearing that Malaysians are growing weary of it, and it is very true. At the same time, some Malaysians have actually become quite addicted to politics. People who had rarely bothered about politics before have become avid followers of politics.

Malaysians have become highly politicised.

It has been an unprecedented year.

Three by-elections

Never in history has there been an occasion of three by-elections at one go.

On April 7, by-elections will take place in Kedah, Perak and Sarawak. These will likely be followed by another in Selangor because Bukit Lanjan assemblyman Elizabeth Wong is expected to vacate her seat.

And before that, there were fierce contests in Permatang Pauh and then Kuala Terengganu.

But the year since the general election has been marked by several pivotal issues and events that will have bearing on the shape of the country’s political future.

The first revolved around the figure of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim – another sodomy accusation, his claim to have the numbers and his failure to deliver them by Sept 16.

The second was the speeded-up political transition in Umno and the politicking in the run-up to the Umno election.

The third is the political crisis in Perak.

Anwar set the political tone not long after March when he claimed to have the numbers to take over the Federal government. It was such a successful psy-war that it was all that everyone could talk about and sent jitters through the ruling coalition.

In the midst of all this, there was the high drama over the sensational second sodomy charge that set off a chain of events of its own, including renewed accusations over the Altantuya murder case and Anwar’s decision to contest the Permatang Pauh seat.

Anwar and his Pakatan group were on a crest but his inability to deliver on Sept 16 set them back, and brought back some measure of confidence to the Barisan.

With Sept 16 come and gone, the focus shifted back to Umno’s own internal crisis. The losses in March had thrown the party into its biggest political dilemma since the Anwar sacking in 1998.

Very few in Umno were in agreement with the original leadership handover date of June 2009. But they could not do anything because Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was adamant not to challenge Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

The outcome of the Permatang Pauh by-election in August changed everything. It set into motion the wheels for Umno to bring forward its leadership transition to March this year.

The new date injected a more confident and settled mood in Umno. Party members had no intention of pushing Abdullah out. What they wanted was a dignified exit for him because they had lost confidence in his leadership after the worst electoral losses in history.

And there was no question about who they wanted to take over as demonstrated by Najib’s near-perfect sweep of endorsement for the party’s No. 1 post.

The politicking in Umno has since shifted to the party elections and it is about to reach its crescendo.

The campaign for party posts has also been blamed for the heightened tone of politics on a variety of issues, with those aspiring for party posts seen as playing to the gallery.

But the dramatic assembly-under-the-tree in Perak on Tuesday perhaps best epitomised the degree to which the political buttons are being pushed in the country.

It exemplified just how determined the parties engaged in this contest for power are in establishing their point of view and standing their ground.

Change of government

The controversial change of government in Perak and the subsequent developments have captured the imagination of not only Perakians but people all over the country.

Regardless of whether they approve or disapprove of what is happening in Perak, people have an opinion on it.

The situation in Perak has become so contentious, the claims and counter-claims so numerous and ultra, that it is increasingly difficult to tell who is right or wrong. Everything has become purely political and the result is a confusing mess.

Politicians in Perak used to jokingly refer to their state as “negeri mati” because nothing ever happened there. Well, it is now the most happening state in the country, but for the wrong reasons.

Every day comes with more bad news on the global economy yet politicians are so wrapped up in their politicking they seem unable to focus on the economy.

In this respect, all the political parties are equally guilty in contributing to the resultant political instability. This should be of great concern because political stability is a top factor for investment and economic growth.

The Barisan supporters say this is what happens when the Opposition becomes too strong. The Pakatan supporters counter that this happened because the Barisan cannot accept the idea of being relegated to an opposition role.

The negative side to this is that the politicking has gone over the top. There is too much gamesmanship going on and too little effort spent on running the Government and serving the people.

Even the media, for whom bad news is good news, are feeling a little worn out by the endless politicking.

On the other hand, the optimists are saying this is part of the growing pains of democracy, and that is a necessary process towards a two-party system. People have to learn to engage in politics, have political opinions and take stands on issues that affect their interests, well-being and future.

For instance, the change of government in several states has revealed some shocking accounts of mismanagement in the previous Barisan administrations.

It has underscored the need for every administration to be accountable and do a good job or they can be changed and their misdeeds exposed.

Not up to mark

And in states which had voted in new governments, there is the realisation that it is easy to criticise but not so easy to do the actual job.

Penang exco member Danny Law’s inability to present his ideas during a recent tourism meeting in Melbourne put him and the state in a bad light. Deputy Chief Minister I Fairus Khairuddin has also come under heavy criticism over his performance, or rather lack of it.

In Perak, the two former PKR assemblymen, who crossed to the Barisan, had landed in the arms of anti-corruption officers just months into their job.

Politics has taken centrestage in the year since the political tsunami.

But over and above all this politicking, there has emerged a much more demanding and politicised public. And they will have to be taken seriously by those who want to hold on to power as well as those aspiring to power.

A year of dramatic politics The Star