SINGAPORE: The absence of Parti Keadilan Rakyat's (PKR) deputy president Azmin Ali and several other senior leaders at the party leaders retreat over the weekend laid bare the divisions within Pakatan Harapan's (PH) lynchpin party.
If not well managed, this could trigger an official parting of ways for some PKR members, with Mr Azmin’s faction leaving to form a new party, or join Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), political analysts told CNA on Monday (Jul 22).
Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told CNA that PKR has “effectively split”, after 20 of its supreme council members released a joint statement last week criticising party president Anwar Ibrahim for not standing by Mr Azmin, who has been implicated in a viral sex video scandal.
Among the signatories of the statement supporting the Economic Affairs Minister were Foreign Affairs Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and Minister of Housing and Local Government Zuraida Kamaruddin.
“If Anwar were to take a further step such as to remove Azmin from his party posts, then Azmin is likely to leave the party and either set up a new party or join an existing one,” said Dr Oh.
He predicted that if Mr Azmin was to mount a party coup against Mr Anwar, Mr Azmin would have at least a 50 per cent chance in deposing him.
Professor James Chin, Director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania, echoed similar sentiments, noting that if Mr Azmin loses a leadership challenge within PKR, he may consider creating a new party or joining Bersatu.
Similarly, Professor Dr Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid from Universiti Sains Malaysia does not discount the possibility of Mr Azmin leaving PKR and joining Bersatu if he and Mr Anwar do not patch things up.
“If Azmin feels aggrieved by Anwar, who is seen not rigorously defending his deputy although the latter has defended him for the past 20 years, I don’t rule out the possibility," he said.
"There will be a different intra-PH configuration if there is a break up (within PKR).”
Mr Anwar's relationship with Mr Azmin dates back to the 1980s when the latter served as Mr Anwar’s special officer.
However, the rift between the two camps within PKR, led separately by Mr Anwar and Mr Azmin, started to surface during the PKR party elections in July last year.
Tensions spiked last week when Mr Anwar reportedly said that Mr Azmin should resign if he is indeed identified as the man in the sex video.
Mr Azmin was conspicuously absent at the party retreat held in Mr Anwar’s constituency of Port Dickson. Party secretary-general Saifuddin Nasution said he spoke personally to Mr Azmin to invite him to attend the retreat, but Mr Azmin said he already had other commitments.
In what may be an attempt to paper over the cracks, the retreat concluded with a resolution to fully support Mr Anwar as the party president. Mr Anwar was seen extending an olive branch to Mr Azmin by stating that he would work together with him “as a team”.
On Mr Azmin’s part, he said at a separate function that they have been together for decades and promised to work together with Mr Anwar. Nonetheless, Mr Azmin warned that his loyalty has a limit. He also pledged loyalty to Dr Mahathir.
OTHER POLITICAL PARTIES TO BENEFIT AT PKR'S EXPENSE
Prof Ahmad Fauzi warned that the rift between Mr Anwar and Mr Azmin is playing into the hands of the opposition - Barisan Nasional and United Malays National Organisation.
“Overall, I would say it gives a very bad impression for Pakatan Harapan in a situation where the economy has yet to stabilise and there is infighting within PKR just after one year of ruling (the country),” he said.
He added that Bersatu may also stand to benefit if there is break-up within PKR.
Currently, out of PH’s 129 parliamentary seats in parliament, PKR is the party with the most seats, at 50. Democratic Action Party is second with 42 seats while Bersatu has 26 seats.
The gap between PKR and Bersatu will close as Bersatu’s members grow, threatening PKR’s power within the coalition.
Prof Ahmad Fauzi noted Dr Mahathir’s long-term plan is to strengthen Bersatu, after he recently accepted UMNO lawmakers into his party.
AZMIN TO BE NEXT PM?
The PKR split would also directly impact the Prime Minister succession plan as earlier agreed by PH. Based on previous announcements, Dr Mahathir is due to hand over the premiership to Mr Anwar in mid-2020.
However, recent developments indicate that Dr Mahathir is perhaps grooming Mr Azmin to be the premier instead, analysts said.
Prof Ahmad Fauzi highlighted that Dr Mahathir’s support for Mr Azmin in the sex video saga when it first broke was very different from his treatment of Mr Anwar 20 years ago when the latter was accused of being involved in sodomy.
Dr Mahathir had said that he did not believe the video involving Mr Azmin was genuine, even before the police concluded their investigations.
“Mahathir somewhat very subtly seems to be protective of Azmin. It is so obvious to Malaysians, his treatment to Azmin is very different compared to 20 years ago when he sacked Anwar, even though the court had not determined whether Anwar was guilty,” said Prof Ahmad Fauzi.
Dr Oh concurred, and highlighted how Dr Mahathir has recently wavered on setting the exact date to handover to Mr Anwar.
“Mahathir seems to be quite firm in not passing the baton to Anwar and is grooming Azmin to replace Anwar,” he said.
Prof Chin stressed that Dr Mahathir is likely to retire soon, but not before Bersatu is in a good position.
“We will have to wait until the middle of next year to see what happens. My take is that Dr Mahathir will step down but he will time it best so that it will benefit PPBM the most,” said Prof Chin.
“I think he is also working on a deal for his son, Mukhriz Mahathir, (to be a key leader) in post-Mahathir Malaysia government,” he said.