KUALA LUMPUR - Just hours after Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Anwar Ibrahim closed the party's national congress in Melaka on Sunday (Dec 8), his rival and deputy Azmin Ali, who had walked out of the party assembly, drew thousands in a show of strength at his own unofficial meeting in downtown Kuala Lumpur.
In a searing speech to counter accusations of betrayal levelled at him over the weekend, Datuk Seri Azmin asserted the loyalty of his faction to the largest party in Malaysia's ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH), pointing out how they had been with the party since day one.
"After 20 years we have fought and been jailed. Suddenly, we are the traitors," he told a packed ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel, a venue chosen for its symbolism as the birthplace of PKR on April 4, 1999.
Like his ally and PKR vice-president Tian Chua, who was booed for warning party members against blind loyalty at the close of the national congress earlier, Mr Azmin said members should not be obsessed with defending their leader, but focus on being builders of a new Malaysia.
"The party was not built by one person, or one family, but by all Malaysians," he said, in a reference to Datuk Seri Anwar and his wife, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who was previously president and is now advisory council chairman, and their daughter Nurul Izzah, who was vice-president until she resigned last December.
Delegates at the congress, chosen by the pro-Anwar organisers, repeatedly affirmed their backing for Mr Anwar to be Malaysia's "eighth prime minister", succeeding Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as agreed by PH leaders.
They also accused Mr Azmin's camp of betrayal, referring to them as "the cartel".
At Mr Azmin's gathering, the loudest cheers went up when he said he had defeated deputy presidency challengers Datuk Zaid Ibrahim and Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim in the past, with the crowd appreciating the implication that he would take on a third Ibrahim, Anwar.
"I never called them traitors. I salute them for being democrats. Even if Zuraida Kamaruddin (PKR vice-president) wants to fight me, I accept. We are family, we have been beaten up together, there is no need to insult each other," he said.
Most of his allies who took to the stage also did not talk about the government's 10-year economic roadmap "Shared Prosperity Vision 2030" as advertised, but the injustice faced by their supporters in the accusations of betrayal.
The two sides had cobbled together a last-minute truce on Wednesday after weeks of surging tensions but it failed to last beyond two days.
PKR's four-day annual congress was marred by violence and a walkout by Mr Azmin's faction after they were called traitors and a slur was made against the Economic Affairs Minister of being more preoccupied with being an "escort minister" to Prime Minister Mahathir and Malaysian King Sultan Abdullah Ahmad than his official duties.
This led to deputy youth chief Hilman Idham, who is also Mr Azmin's political secretary, to say at the dinner that "we are in crisis, a leadership crisis."
Despite the bitter feud, Mr Azmin told reporters before leaving that "the question of starting a new party does not arise".
"I invite all members to put aside the problems of the past and move forward together as a strong party under the current president," he said.
"I did not attack anyone (in my speech). I explained that when the president was faced with various challenges, as the deputy I immediately defended him, as I have done for 20 years.
"I merely do not want him to be influenced by those who do not understand Reformasi," he said, referring to the reformist slogan that birthed PKR.