This first appeared in The Malay Mail Online on March 5, 2015.
MARCH 5 — On Saturday, as a country, so many things will be clearer.
There’s a rally on that day, the 7th of March in the city — not quite the Ides of March but it certainly appears ominous for Pakatan Rakyat. All indications point to a mediocre turnout at this latest instalment of #KitaLawan (We shall fight) and a real dent on the prophesy claiming the people of the country will show up as they did at the height of Reformasi in 1998 if Anwar Ibrahim goes to prison again.
I wish that were not to be true and I’ll end up eating humble pie come Sunday. However, I fear I won’t have to. Too much is pointing to #EpicFail.
If all the Saturdays preceding the one closing on us — since the Federal Court’s ruling consigned Anwar to Sungai Buloh Prison — are to be barometers of what kind of crowd will hit Kuala Lumpur downtown onMarch 7, then it is bleak reading.
Small groups within the 500 persons count have continued to gather every weekend under the banner of #KitaLawan to free Anwar from prison, and the numbers have as the weeks progressed not increased but perhaps have started to shrink. The protesters, mostly below 30, are primarily associated with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
This weekend, there is a more concerted effort, I mean even the rally-averse DAP youth wing, DAPSY, yesterday called out to their supporters to turn up.
I’m not so convinced.
Where it all goes gaga, but no googoo
To begin with, the question is what would constitute a successful rally in the city to match the immensity of the cause, the imprisonment of the leader of the Opposition?
Pakatan Rakyat claims more than half the country is with them, and with overwhelming electoral wins in the city and Selangor, the expectations can be astronomical.
To be fair to the rally organisers, the benchmark will always be the two mad weekends in November 2007 — the first Bersih and Hindraf marches. They were watershed moments, while the largest in living memory is Bersih 3.0 which set a clear-path to the 2013 General Elections.
Anything close to those would be a wild success. If only a fraction of those events, meaning below 10,000, then serious soul-searching would be necessary.
The only positive sign is that the #KitaLawan Facebook fan page has 15,000 plus likes as of early this morning.
What’s bad about it, to begin with?
No one knows whose rally it is. The imageries produced and information sheet on social media suggests that it is the protest by anak muda (young people). PKR leaders are backing it and attending it, with press conferences at the party headquarters, saying maybe it is a little of both.
Maybe it is an anak muda initiative, but really it is for all to attend. That’s the feel as PKR leaders like Nurul Izzah Anwar, Rafizi Ramli, Tian Chua and N.Surendran have been backing the gatherings.
Yet, deputy president and front-runner for the Pakatan leadership sans Anwar, Azmin Ali, has been indifferent about #KitaLawan. Nothing in his fan page, personal account or website refers to the protests before or to the impending one. While the previous menteri besar of Selangor was always detached from the politics of his political party, Azmin is a grassroots leader who dominates the state party apparatus. He having scant regard for the protests tells a lot about what he thinks of the protests.
He’s not alone. Amiruddin Shari, the man who lost to Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad in the PKR youth chief race but a fellow exco in Selangor, who wields much clout in the youth ranks across Klang Valley has been equally muted about #KitaLawan. The deputy youth chief, Afif Bahardin, has no mentions in his Facebook page, mimicking Amiruddin.
So even if Nik Nazmi has been ever-present at the #KitaLawan rallies, the youth support is suspect or at least split. Not all anak muda feel the same way it seems.
The usual activist allies are quiet over #KitaLawan, for example Bersih. So the question remains unanswered, within the opposition lines who is with #KitaLawan?
Certainly not PAS whose silence is palpable. Their party news portal, Harakah Daily, has gone radio silent about March 7 or any of the previous #KitaLawan gatherings. Those who are familiar with rallies in Malaysia will be cognisant that few gatherings without PAS supporters can get the mass traction.
Whether they are videos, visuals or discussions, there is fairly limited activity around #KitaLawan.
What would it indicate?
When, not if Saturday’s rally goes flat, alarm bells will be set off.
Firstly on organisation. PKR has lent its name to the event, and is promoting it, a low turnout would be saying either support for the party has waned, or Anwar’s appeal to the masses is limited or there is a colossal failure to organise. Party support varies over the year and Anwar has a nation divided over his incarceration, therefore the accusation will narrow to abysmal organisation.
The rumours will be both that PKR is disorganised and remains a party divided, even more so without Anwar.
PAS’ disengagement from the larger Pakatan agenda will appear even more telling. Harder it will become to deny naysayers who point to friction between Azmin and Anwar’s family, and serious reservations will emerge for anyone who will be forwarded as the person from PKR to keep an uneasy peace inside Pakatan.
It will underline that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s survival concerns lie elsewhere than a bunch of riffraff from the Opposition.
Waiting for the game-changer
As I said, most Malaysians are not comfortable with a grandfather in prison over what many feel is a political outcome rather than about law and order.
However in Malaysia’s winner takes all system, being right does not mean much. Which is why orating about just how wrong it is to imprison Anwar does not change anything.
Malaysians do like gumption, a sense of can do. They admire that in any person, whatever their history is.
It begins with honesty. I worry that even if the numbers are depressing, the leaders won’t bother to accept their shortcomings. They’d continue to point that 52 per cent of the country disagrees with Barisan Nasional (BN), purely on voting patterns almost two years ago at the general election.
That annoys a fair number of people. A vote against BN or actively for Pakatan two years ago does not mean those votes are static. Politicians have to work for the confidence of their electorate every day, not regard votes as permanent mandates.
Rallies are about democracy, but democracy is an ideal and every rally has to stipulate a clear reason for protesting. It is not about the number of rallies but the quality of the rallies. And every successful rally has been the fruit of rigorous and long term planning.
PKR or anak muda cannot just choose a date and expect people to show up in droves, they have to judge the temperature on the ground and present objectives and means that the people can relate to and see a possible achievement.
A real build-up, not just weekly announcements of rallies which then end up as hollow events, otherwise PKR especially is tempting a time in the wilderness.