What now for PKR's infighting - retreat or escalation?

KUALA LUMPUR - The sea was calm in Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's constituency of Port Dickson but his Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) was in stormy waters ahead of its weekend leadership retreat in the beach resort town.

The party has been in turmoil since viral videos allegedly of deputy party president Azmin Ali being involved in gay sex were released last month.

Mr Anwar, 71, has denied any role in the circulation of the clips, after his political secretary Farhash Mubarak was remanded last week in connection with the saga and police said a leader of a political party had paid hundreds of thousands of ringgit for material to be used to undermine a Cabinet minister.

National police chief Hamid Bador also said that the clips were authentic but that facial recognition came back negative and "was unable to link the person in the video with the alleged individual".

With neither leader being named by police, there is room for reconciliation and retreat from the hostilities in the PKR, which has 50 of the governing Pakatan Harapan's (PH) 129 MPs.

Invited to officiate the PKR retreat on Friday night (July 19), Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned the largest component of his PH coalition that squabbling over power would cause the government to fall.

Having defended Mr Azmin, 54, right from the start following the release of the videos, Tun Dr Mahathir and his lieutenants have become reticent of late when asked about the saga and its impact on the transition of power, saying there are more important issues to deal with.

"If police investigations eventually fizzle out, Anwar will remain the base case to be the next prime minister, although his reputation will be weakened by widespread suspicion among the public that his affiliates were involved in leaking the videos, with accusations of hypocrisy as Anwar himself was jailed twice on politically motivated charges of sodomy," said risk consultancy Eurasia Group's Asia director Peter Mumford.

Tensions between Mr Anwar - who was sacked as deputy premier by Dr Mahathir in 1998 over sodomy allegations - and Mr Azmin are at an all-time high.

 
 
 
 

While both had their eyes set on controlling Malaysia's richest state, Selangor, after the 2013 General Election - seen as the genesis of their rift - the tussle was played out behind closed doors in backroom dealings, with top PKR leaders making public statements of loyalty and unity. Mr Azmin was named the state's Menteri Besar in 2014.  

The ruling PH agreed prior to winning last year's elections that Mr Anwar will take over from Dr Mahathir.

But the Prime Minister, who at 94 recently set three years as a timeline for his departure, has also said that his eventual successor must command majority support, which some saw as an opening for Mr Azmin, who is regarded as the Prime Minister's blue-eyed boy.

Just before the launch of the retreat on Friday, Mr Anwar took a contrite stance, promising the party will unite for the public good. But it remains to be seen if his faction will follow through on his pledge. Nearly all leaders aligned to Mr Azmin were absent from Friday night's event.

"Anwar has turned the leadership retreat into a show of force by getting nearby members to fill the room for the opening. It feels like the axe is swinging over our necks as we will be accused of disloyalty to the president if we don't come, but if we do, then are we implying we don't believe Azmin?" a senior official from Malacca, a state neigbouring Negeri Sembilan, told The Straits Times. Port Dickson is located in Negeri Sembilan.

The question now is whether Mr Azmin, who has claimed the videos were an internal party conspiracy, heeds Dr Mahathir's call to end the infighting. The Straits Times understands that in a private meeting before the PKR retreat, the Premier told his Economic Affairs Minister, Mr Azmin, that the police findings so far should be taken as positive.

"The message was simply to get on with work," said an official with knowledge of the meeting.

One pointer for the future could be whether his faction attends the rest of the retreat which stretches up to to Sunday afternoon.

PKR deputy president Mr Azmin and other office bearers in his camp were scheduled to speak on Saturday, but several, including Mr Azmin himself did not turn up.

PKR, PH as well as the rest of the country may now have to brace themselves for the mercury to rise further, which could lead "to more open splits and ally re-configurations within PH", said Rome-based John Cabot University's associate professor of political science Bridget Welsh.

This could even mean "new non-PH re-configurations, a different form of coalition government", but a snap election would be unlikely, she told The Straits Times.