SHAH ALAM, SELANGOR - Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) narrowed on Sunday (July 17) the gulf in understanding on how to approach looming Malaysian general elections, cooling a dispute that had led to a fractious months-long leadership contest.
Both Datuk Seri Anwar and his newly elected deputy, Mr Rafizi Ramli, expressed an openness to cooperate with those opposed to the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), so long as they are bound by PKR's reformist ideals.
"The Big Tent in the sense of establishing an understanding and alliance with those who have betrayed us and clearly do not represent the reform agenda, that for sure cannot proceed," Mr Anwar told a press conference after the end of his party's three-day annual congress.
He was returned as president unopposed in party polls that concluded on Sunday, while Mr Rafizi's favoured candidates took nearly three-quarters of party positions.
Former lawmaker Rafizi and his running mates had campaigned on rejecting the Big Tent approach, whereby the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition chaired by Mr Anwar seeks broader cooperation with other parties despite ideological differences.
"I don't feel that there is such a big gap. We cannot go into elections hoping that just by finding allies, we can convince the public to vote for us," Mr Rafizi said. "We need a coherent set of policies more than anything else."
But he explained that in specific locations, such as the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, where PH has never been a dominant force, if others "also reject BN and are not corrupt and can add value. Then, of course, this can be discussed, but not to the extent that it becomes the main strategy.
"If there are other parties in certain places that want to be together, they are bound by these principles.
"This will help us avoid repeating past experiences, where we were forced to compromise on certain issues and ended up with negotiations which were about seats or positions, instead of policies or offering."
But Mr Anwar refused to say outright if this ruled out Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, which broke away from PH just 22 months after winning the 2018 election together, took with it a third of PKR's MPs and installed its president, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, as premier.
Mr Anwar said: "I will answer in principle first, in detail we have to discuss. Those who clearly betrayed the party, it is difficult. Not me personally, but the sentiment is that it is not acceptable. Even some of our own friends (in PKR) who were linked to it (the defections), there is still anger.
"The sentiment is that they have committed a grievous crime against our cause. They toppled our government and this is not a question of personal position but the people's mandate."
An agreement before the 2018 polls saw Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, then Bersatu chairman, return as premier on the condition that he would hand power to Mr Anwar. But this failed to materialise due to the so-called Sheraton Move of February 2020 that ended PH rule.
Mr Anwar, who was sacked as deputy premier in 1998 during Dr Mahathir's first stint in power, referred to "the controversy of 2018", where "I was among the last to be convinced" that his former mentor should be PH's prime ministerial candidate.
"We did not know that, maybe, it would have had a positive effect, but it turned out to be to the detriment of the people - not about me losing my opportunity - and the situation became worse than before."
Mr Anwar and Mr Rafizi - as well as their supporters - have clashed in recent days over election strategy ahead of polls due in 14 months but expected by many to be called this year.
This even led to a dispute over whether some were "sucking up to the president" instead of working to win back power.
In his winding-up speech as deputy president, Mr Rafizi repeated his warning that "it is not enough just for Anwar to campaign" and for leaders to "defend the president" but to convince a public who are more concerned about "what did you do and what you will do" in government.
Mr Anwar closed the congress by expressing similar sentiments about ensuring that the party's election machinery is ready and united.
He also made a reconciliatory remark about his deputy.
"Yes he is controversial and sometimes I get a headache. But it turned out his speech today was Panadol," he said.