Malaysian opposition alliance in disarray with jailing of Anwar

But group has chance to show united front: Analysts

The jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who lost his appeal against his conviction for sodomy, has thrown his Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance into further disarray amid ongoing infighting.

But analysts believe it also offers the tripartite alliance an opportunity to present a cohesive front to push ahead without the 67-year-old stalwart, who has often been the glue that kept the pact together. Anwar has been so crucial that PR refused to talk openly about candidates - or the lack thereof - to replace him as opposition leader.

Such a candidate would have to come from Anwar's Malay-led but multiracial Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). The reason is that top figures from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) or the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) lack acceptance across Malaysia's wide demographic.

And while Anwar's wife and PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail has played the role of opposition leader before, she made way as soon as he returned to Parliament.

This leaves PKR deputy president Azmin Ali, who last year won the powerful post of chief minister of Selangor, having the most clout and experience.

Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who runs the Ideas think-tank, said the sodomy conviction gives PR an opportunity to "move beyond Anwar".

"If Anwar wants to dictate things from behind bars, then PR is doomed," he told The Straits Times. He said that as PAS and DAP are led respectively by the often divisive Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and Mr Lim Kit Siang, who holds de facto veto despite his son Guan Eng being the party's top elected figure, Mr Azmin is the most acceptable candidate.

But question marks remain over whether the long-time Anwar lieutenant can play mediator and also inspire the grassroots. Unlike the huge crowds that took to the streets when Anwar was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998, a rally on Monday drew only a few thousand people and the number of supporters at the court was even smaller.

And while some say the jailing of Anwar could unite the opposition in the face of adversity, PAS has seemingly not changed its confrontational stance. Though PR's top leaders agreed on Sunday to convene immediately after yesterday's verdict, the meeting was postponed because Mr Hadi could make time to meet his colleagues only on Friday.

Mr Hadi also issued a statement, claiming that in the light of Anwar's unjust imprisonment, only syariah law could ensure justice, a stance unlikely to be welcomed by the DAP, which opposes enacting such laws.

But Mr Wan Saiful believes it is time that PR rose above these petty squabbles. The "less than electric" numbers who were at the court and rallies suggested that "people have moved on and are waiting for Pakatan to behave like adults", he said.

shannont@sph.com.sg