Last edited: September 06, 2004

Will Anwar Return to Umno Fold?

Other party rebels have left and come back, so Anwar could well do the same or he could take over PAS

The Straits Times, September 4, 2004

By Cheong Suk-Wai

IF TRUE success means standing up where you fell, you can be sure Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will rejoin Umno.

So the only question, say political observers, is: When?

Yesterday, the just-freed Umno dissident was careful not to rule out the prospect of returning to the fold, saying that he ‘did not preclude any discussion with Umno’ to agree on a reform agenda.

A day earlier, one of his staunchest supporters, Mr Kamaruddin Jaafar, had hinted that Datuk Seri Anwar and his coterie might yet reconcile with Umno. ‘A lot has happened, but we are not rejecting the possibility. However, it will not be that straightforward or simple,’ he said.

Datuk Seri Anwar himself said cryptically: ‘If I can work with Mahathir, there is no reason why I cannot work with anybody else.’

As political scientist Johan Saravanamuttu sees it, Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi—in keeping with his consensual style—might just come to an understanding with Datuk Seri Anwar, which would then make Umno seem ‘more attractive to the latter’.

But Prof Saravanamuttu stresses that that may take ‘weeks, if not months’ because Umno is very much about ‘gut politics’ for which Datuk Seri Anwar may not have the appetite at the moment.

As he puts it: ‘A whole lot of factionalism and back-stabbing takes place, and a considerably weakened Anwar may be a little broken in body and spirit for it.’

Upon Datuk Seri Anwar’s release on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak told The New Straits Times that the question of his predecessor rejoining Umno did not arise because he was the founder of another political party.

But then, in 1990, Umno had welcomed back even his current boss, namely, Pak Lah, after having consigned the latter to the fringes for opposing Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership in 1987.

A few Umno veterans, including Supreme Council member Shahrir Abdul Samad, went so far as to say that Umno was ‘open enough’ to accept Datuk Seri Anwar again and that it was ‘all up to him’ whether or not to return to its fray.

Indeed, whatever one may think of Malaysia’s ruling party, it has often provided a trial by fire for the country’s political leaders.

It expelled Tun Dr Mahathir in 1969 for challenging the leadership of its then president Tunku Abdul Rahman in the midst of Malaysia’s bloodiest race riots in May that year. But by 1972, Tun Dr Mahathir was back in the rank and file.

It spat out former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in 1987 for going head to head with Tun Dr Mahathir.

After breaking away and forming the splinter party Semangat 46 in 1989, Tengku Razaleigh even joined forces with the fundamentalist opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) against Umno in the 1990 and 1995 general elections. Yet, today, he is firmly ensconced within Umno.

So should Datuk Seri Anwar rejoin Umno, it would hardly shock anybody.

But economist and political observer Jomo Kwame Sundram points out that Tengku Razaleigh was allowed back into the party only after he was ‘greatly weakened’, when many in his camp had abandoned him.

Prof Jomo adds that Umno itself has become ‘a much less democratic party’ today, which means its members have little room to diverge from their top leaders’ chosen path (witness the constant calls for no contests of the party’s top posts in recent weeks).

And the larger-than-life person that is Datuk Seri Anwar would certainly need a lot more room than that.

Which is why it is not such a stretch to suggest that he might just want to join PAS, from whose arms Tun Dr Mahathir snatched him when he was bursting with potential in 1982.

But Prof Saravanamuttu is not so sure. As he sees it: ‘Anwar may not take PAS with all its baggage, namely its shabby showing in the recent general election.

‘But to lead PAS, Anwar would have to re-engineer PAS in such a way that it embodies his own take on Islam.’

Prof Jomo adds that Datuk Seri Anwar’s brand of Islamist politics is ‘cosmopolitan and democratic’, and so akin to that of former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid.

Still, PAS secretary-general Nasharudin Mat Isa made what Prof Jomo called ‘a very important concession’ when he said Datuk Seri Anwar could now take his place as the rightful leader of the opposition.

He could do so easily by reviving interest in the party he founded in 1999, namely, Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

Since 1999, PAS and Keadilan have been in the opposition coalition called Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front).

Prof Jomo adds: ‘It would certainly be an interesting proposition for Anwar—to lead PAS without being within PAS.’

But Keadilan was trounced at the March polls, and Pak Lah has stolen much of the thunder from its reformasi calls against corruption, cronyism and nepotism with his new policies.

So Datuk Seri Anwar has lost the platform he once stood on and Keadilan is firing damp squibs at Umno. Plus, with Tun Dr Mahathir out of the way, Keadilan has lost its main target.

The upshot is that, while PAS and Keadilan are in dire need of a charismatic and thinking leader, only Umno can guarantee Datuk Seri Anwar national leadership.

‘The choice seems obvious for a political animal like Anwar, although the shape of his politics to come is still a big question mark,’ says Prof Saravanamuttu.

But for now, Umno’s focus is on healing the gash in Malay consciousness caused by its denouement of Datuk Seri Anwar even as he himself focuses on healing his bad back.

As Prof Saravanamuttu puts it: ‘It is ironic that Anwar’s release has raised Pak Lah’s stature and will serve Umno’s interests.’

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