Ousting a popular chief minister in his own party risks trouble but repositions him nationally
The surprise decision last month by Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to push aside Khalid Ibrahim, the respected chief minister of Selangor, one of the country’s two biggest states, and try to take the post himself is a complex gamble.
Among other things, it is designed to preserve or enhance Anwar’s standing as a national figure, according to political analysts in Kuala Lumpur, by giving him a state to run. Should he lose the March 23 state by-election that would give him the job – considered unlikely – it would consign him to political oblivion and make his Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) appear riven with factionalism.
Former state Assemblyman Lee Chin Cheh raised the curtain on the drama last month by resigning his seat in a Kuala Lumpur suburban district that would allow Anwar to stand for the state seat. That has upset many within the party who view it as an opportunistic move by Anwar and who have applauded Khalid’s stewardship of the state.
One think tank head joked that watching the opposition crack heads also gives Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak a respite from the barrage of personal attacks he has been under from the ruling Barisan Nasional’s right wing.
Helpful moveWhatever issues Anwar’s decision raises, strategically it settles the problem of a nagging internal party dispute, repositions him politically and resolves the issue of a popular but tight-fisted chief minister who has come under fire for refusing to spend money on infrastructure projects.
“Anwar will tackle national issues using a state platform,” said a longtime United Malays National Organization political operative. “I think he is going to give UMNO real trouble. It is a good move for the opposition, but it has put UMNO on the back foot. I think as Selangor chief minister he will give Najib a tougher fight.”
Although the decision was a surprise, it has been percolating since before last May’s general election, when some elements of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition were already pushing to replace Khalid, who has clashed with PKR party chief, Azman Ali, over a number of issues, including state contracting.
Khalid responded to the brewing challenge by leading the opposition coalition to a smashing victory based on his corruption-free stewardship of the state; the Pakatan Rakyat took 77 percent of the vote while the BN got just 23 percent.
Anwar, despite his leadership of the PR coalition, is said to have been frustrated because he lacks a platform to influence national politics and leading the coalition in parliament was not a sufficiently commanding arena. As chief minister, he would attend the Malaysia Conference of Rulers, where he can interact with the country’s nine sultans, who play a role in amending the constitution.
It would also give him a forum at the National Land Council, Finance Ministry and other key meetings with the federal government chaired by the prime minister. In the past, Anwar has shined in such gatherings, in contrast to Najib’s performance in front of key civil servants and ministers.
How do we spell G-O-D?In any case, the decision to push Khalid aside was triggered in early January when religious authorities in Selangor seized hundreds of Malay-language bibles using the word “Allah” in reference to the Christian God. The issue has been boiling for months if not years, and appears to have been manufactured entirely by UMNO strategists, since Christians in the east Malaysia states of Sabah and Sarawak have been using the word to denote God for more than a century, as have Christians across the Middle East and Indonesia.