Sunday, January 28, 2007

Out of the Cage

Khairy Jamaluddin
New Straits Times

THE campaign in the Batu Talam by-election has been frustrating. A rural constituency with not much by way of industry or economic development, it is typical of the many agricultural state assembly districts in the Malay heartland. By physical size it is as large as Perlis.

It takes almost an hour to get from the outskirts of Raub town where Batu Talam begins to some areas of Felda Tersang or Hulu Atok at the other ends of the constituency. It is an ideal venue for a classic duel between two of the biggest Malay-based political parties in Malaysia, repeating the many contests that have taken place in the very same place during previous elections.

When news of the death of the former assemblyman was relayed to me, I anticipated a spirited challenge by the opposition in the form of a Pas candidate.

After all, 2006 in many ways was not an easy year for Umno and its leadership. There were concerns over economic growth, divisive issues concerning religion and ethnicity, and a very public and damaging spat between present and past leaders.

The timing of the by-election was, therefore, a fortuitous turn of events for the opposition keen to capitalise on the setbacks of the past year. Or so I thought.

But instead of facing off with Umno/Barisan Nasional in Batu Talam, the opposition has staged a boycott of the by-election. Rather than using the opportunity of the campaign as a platform for raising issues against the government, they have decided to abstain from the election purportedly as a sign of protest against the Election Commission (EC). They claim that the EC needs an urgent and comprehensive revamp to clean up the electoral roll and also to re-examine laws and regulations that discriminate against opposition parties.

Yet, they forget to mention that this is the same EC that oversaw the last general election, the Sarawak state polls and the Kuala Berang and Pengkalan Pasir by-elections which all saw opposition candidates participate freely without any restriction and win some seats. They omitted the fact that after Pas’s loss in Pengkalan Pasir, they challenged, albeit without success, the result of the election in court. They will never admit to the various complaints and reports that Umno has made to the EC of "phantom voters" appearing or the systematic moving of voters from Pas strongholds to marginal seats in Kelantan.

The very real reason that the mainstream opposition is not contesting in Batu Talam is because of the near certainty of losing and losing badly. They know that a crushing defeat will take whatever initiative they had gained during the events of last year away from them. A comprehensive defeat would nullify whatever psychological gains they believe they have made. And they know that the best way of solidifying and uniting the Umno/Barisan Nasional rank-and-file is to go up against Pas, one on one.

So when on nomination day, we discovered that we were not up against Pas, not even against DAP or Keadilan but an independent candidate barely old enough to vote (I’m not even sure that he’s even a registered voter), we knew the campaign would be frustrating and difficult. It would be frustrating because of the absence of a real enemy.

You can never land the sort of punches that you train for years to throw when you don’t have anybody in your weight category to fight. And the campaign would be difficult because you are really just up against yourself. I suppose the best analogy is you cannot expect someone running the 100 metres alone to break the world record. The athlete would have to be running with the best peers in the world to have a chance of setting a new mark.

This is not to say that the opposition has stayed out entirely. Pas, typical of its new schizophrenic brand of leadership under the very confused younger generation of leaders, has given instructions to party members to boycott the election but if they must participate to support the independent candidate.

It was evident during the last few days of the campaign that their boycott didn’t preclude going down to give ceramah on the pretext of explaining the boycott but really lending their political capital for the opposition candidate.

The lack of a firm directive to their own members hardly signals a political entity that is sure of its own convictions and future direction. And as the Umno information chief astutely pointed out, had the by-election been held in Kelantan, in one of the Pas-held seats where the fate of the entire state government would hinge on its outcome, the thought of a boycott would not have even entered their minds.

DAP has also demonstrated a badly concealed indecision over Batu Talam. It is no secret that the independent candidate’s father has had a strong past with DAP and the party’s involvement in the by-election is strongly inferred from all the behind-the-scenes assistance and preparations that have been made for the independent candidate. DAP’s lack of a consistent and principled stand in Batu Talam may be symptomatic of the public power struggle that is imploding the party as it prepares for life after their emperor.

In many ways, Batu Talam reflects the health of the opposition at the national level. They find themselves without a clear direction, devoid of any real electoral strategy and lacking in any real political initiative.

Their neither-here-nor-there posturing in Batu Talam with the feeble excuse of not trusting the EC thrown in, exposes them as a political sideshow clutching at straws for what to do next. Remember, if the government had a rough year politically last year, none of it was due to the opposition’s own efforts. They merely cheered it on, unable to gain traction on any issue they wanted to raise.

Of course there was great hope within opposition circles that the return of Anwar Ibrahim would provide them with fresh impetus. Sadly for them, Anwar ending his nomadic wanderings has not led to any new consensus emerging ahead of the next general election.

He is still short on ideas as to how to position himself between Pas and DAP, desperately not wanting to alienate any part of the vast political spectrum that he wants to straddle. (Sounds familiar?) He has been taking his usual pot-shots, making allegations and spreading innuendo. But 2007 is a year short of a decade on from his heyday reformasi moments and Anwar is beginning to look and sound like a pathetic, marginal has-been.

I suppose one of the greatest failings of the opposition is their lack of any positive platform. What they offer in their rallies, through their elected representatives, in their websites and via their mouthpieces in blogosphere, is what the Americans call negative campaigning.

Rather than getting their policy platforms across, almost all of the opposition’s activities and efforts are channelled towards pointing out what they think is wrong with the government today.

Think about it. When was the last time the opposition came up with an original, positive policy platform? Sometimes they bring up pertinent issues but most of the time, their charges have as much veracity as a blog run by some never-was journo hack with a dried-up contact list and an enormous chip on his shoulder.

What has made it worse for the opposition is the open policy of the present government that has encouraged dissent from within its ranks. Case in point would be the emboldened government backbenchers who regularly take senior government officials to task for failed promises or shoddy execution rendering the opposition redundant.

So as frustrating as the Batu Talam campaign has been it has served — as countless other by-elections have in the past — as a useful indicator of national political trends. Before nomination day many thought that it would be a barometer of heartland support for the government and the prime minister.

But as events have shown, it has exposed the dysfunctional and rudderless state of the opposition that sought to spin the boycott in their favour only to see it blow up right in their faces.

Penangite comments: As I posted very much the chief campaigner, of course the absolute victory would be expected. Out of the 'Cage', in to the 'Cave'.

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