Najib’s Penanti strategy?

By Shanon Shah

Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s assertion that by-elections are wasteful and his insinuation that the Barisan Nasional (BN) may boycott the Penanti by-election are not new ideas. Back in August 2008, then Kelantan Umno chief Tan Sri Annuar Musa called for the BN to boycott the Permatang Pauh by-election for similar reasons. Of course, the BN still contested and was trounced by Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

The public could be forgiven for thinking that this sort of rubbishing of by-elections is driven by the BN’s fear of losing. After all, being trounced in four out of five by-elections since the March 2008 general election cannot be something the BN is happy about. Umno’s political bureau was to have decided on Penanti in its 4 May meeting, but the announcement was postponed. The party and its BN partners are for now keeping mum about whether the BN is contesting.

Is there a more calculated reason why the BN is being so coy about Penanti? Could it be that Najib wants to test how strong, or weak, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is? Could Najib be using this as an opportunity to test how much actual support the PR, in particular PKR, could garner when the BN is not part of the equation?

Picture this: the BN does not contest in Penanti, but PKR is challenged by a PR partner, like PAS, which could have happened. Or what if the contest is between a PKR candidate and a disgruntled ex-PKR “independent”? Imagine if the independent put up a credible fight and even won back his or her deposit. Najib could then say, “See? PKR isn’t as popular with the rakyat as it claims to be.” Already, PKR’s recent vicious infighting has been aired for all to see.

PKR Youth deputy chief Fariz Musa does not discount this possibility in the BN’s strategy.

“Everything, from the corruption allegations to the subsequent exoneration of (former Penanti assemblyperson Mohammad) Fairus (Khairuddin) by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), was a BN ploy,” Fariz tells The Nut Graph.

In a phone interview, he says, “The BN has been trying to manufacture within the traditional media that there is this heavy infighting within the PR, especially PKR.” But, by comparison, the BN’s own infighting seems even more vicious compared with the PR’s, he says. For proof, he says check out the inconsistent calls by different BN leaders on whether or not to contest in Penanti.

DAP Bukit Bendera Member of Parliament Liew Chin Tong tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview: “Najib is scared because those who live by the sword die by the sword.”

According to Liew, the BN used their massive defeat in Permatang Pauh as an excuse to force Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi out of office. “A massive defeat in Penanti could then be construed as disapproval for Najib,” he says.

Opportunistic considerations?

“Hypothetically, there are merits to contesting the by-election,” Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview. “If there is a democratic election, conventional wisdom says that political parties should contest.”

However, Khairy, who was at the Umno political bureau meeting on 4 May, echoes Najib’s reasoning that some by-elections, like Penanti, are unnecessary because they “make a mockery out of the democratic process and electoral system.”

When asked if a split in the PR could benefit the BN if it were to contest, Khairy says, “That’s an opportunistic consideration.” He says the BN should instead “decide based on principle” whether or not to contest.

“And whether or not we contest, the important thing now is to look at our election laws,” he says. “For example, right now the penalty for resigning as a representative targets the individual. What about penalising political parties that artificially trigger such by-elections?”

But Khairy dismisses the idea that a BN boycott of the by-election would actually be a strategy to dilute PKR’s, and by extension the PR’s, sphere of influence over voters.

Fighting schmighting

Gerakan secretary-general Teng Chang Yeow also denies that a BN boycott of the Penanti by-election is an elaborate strategy to exploit PKR’s internal weaknesses, but for different reasons.

“People have been unhappy with the BN since March 2008, and have been waiting to teach us a lesson at every opportunity,” he says in a phone interview.

“You can throw scandal after scandal at PAS, DAP or PKR, and people will still vote for them, because the factors are just not in the BN’s favour,” he says.

Does this mean, then, that the Penanti by-election will be yet another referendum on the BN? Especially in the light of the Perak state assembly spectacle on 7 May that saw the BN forcibly wrest power from Speaker V Sivakumar?

“You can’t call it a referendum per se, because how can some 15,000 voters be representative of the entire country?” Teng argues. “But taken together, the various by-election results are definitely indicators of public perception and sentiment towards the BN.”

Teng says, therefore, that Najib’s initial reluctance to contest in Penanti was not driven by any deeper or insidious motive.

“He was trying to prove a point — that by-elections should not be called simply because of party infighting,” he explains.

“And it is clear that Fairus was forced out because of internal squabbling in PKR. He was forced to resign even before the MACC made its decision.

“But the fact is that the BN is trying to make a change now,” says Teng. He says there is no longer a looming “father figure” within the BN who calls all the shots.

“But the PR still needs its ‘father figure’ — (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim,” he says. “Without Anwar, the PR component parties will be fighting like anything.”

So here’s the prognosis: things may not be looking good for PKR or the PR in general. However, they look even worse for the BN in Penanti. And with the recent events in Perak, the BN may have power, but is most likely losing the plot.

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