Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – It is minutes after a gut-wrenching election loss for Malaysia’s opposition and it has fallen on parliamentarian Rafizi Ramli to address the troops.
At an ad hoc press conference in the early hours of Monday on the steps of Pakatan Rakyat’s headquarters, a downcast Ramli spoke in whispered tones to the opposition supporters who leaned in close to hear his words.
He spoke of opposition victories in the key states of Kelantan, Penang and the economic powerhouse Selangor. He said the ruling party, which would soon win a majority in parliament with a reported seat count of 133 – compared with 87 for the opposition – would reveal its internal rifts as it divided “the spoils of war”.
His voice finally rose, however, to make his final message. “We will continue,” he said.
The question many Malaysians are asking is just how exactly that is going to happen.
Only hours before, the three-party Pakatan Rakyat coalition had promised victory, to unseat the pro-Malay government and completely overhaul an ossified system that has been in place in one form or another since 1957.
The opposition had promised change, or “ubah“, tapping into global sentiment to change existing orders and topple broken, corrupt power structures in an unstoppable wave of youth, social media and hope. But this “Malaysian Spring”, as some had called it, was not to be. On paper, the opposition held its ground. In terms of ideology, it was a crushing defeat.
Enter Anwar Ibrahim. For many, the leadership of the fiery, scandal-plagued statesman, one of Southeast Asia’s great orators, was enough to look past ethnic, religious and political differences and unite the opposition in a fight against the old guard of Malaysian politics.
On the steps of Pakatan headquarters last night, no one knew what Anwar would do next. In a better scenario, he would have been standing where Ramli was. The crowd grumbled over their leader’s previous claims that he would step down if the opposition lost.
“I have not seen or spoken to him. It will be part of my job to implore him to reconsider, although his previous statements have been pretty adamant,” Ramli told Al Jazeera.
“We need him – and clearly the country needs him.”
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In comments to Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi early on Monday, Anwar blasted the Election Commission as “complicit” in robbing the opposition of victory.
“In the last few days, we have never seen such a groundswell of support. We were absolutely certain we would garner enough support,” he said in a live interview.
Anwar has promised to challenge the election results, even threatening legal action. He said the opposition would not recognise the results “until the EC responds and issues an official statement to the allegations of irregularities and fraud”, according to reports. When asked by Al Jazeera about the future, however, the 65-year-old Anwar demurred.
As Malaysia waits for his decision whether to return to academia or soldier on as a politician, analysts believe the opposition is at an existential crisis point.
“I imagine they will be tempted to talk him out of retiring. I understand why, but I think the opposition needs to understand why it must move to a post-Anwar phase,” said Clive Kessler, professor and Malaysia expert at the University of New South Wales.
“The opposition is limited because it has remained a three-legged animal composed of parties that are not all that compatible. It was an improbable coalition that only Anwar and his brand of leadership could have ever brought together.”
According to Kessler, the opposition must use the next five years to start an entirely new political dialogue. “The opposition must generate a new politics; a more acceptable version of the horse-trading and brokering that has been the usual discourse between ethnically based parties. It needs to find a post-communal, post-ethnic-based brand of politics.”
AB Shamsul, a former university classmate of Anwar’s and founder and director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies at the National University of Malaysia, sees it in different terms. “He should come back. Age is still on his side if you use [Dr Mohamed] Mahathir as a benchmark,” Shamsul said, referring to the former Malaysian prime minister who served from 1981 to 2003 and is still an active voice in politcs.
He continued: “Anwar has all the Chinese support and half the Indian support. He can still bring the opposition together under one party, like the Barisan Nasional [the ruling coalition] because the opposition’s infighting cost them votes, a lot of votes.”
Before the vote on Sunday, Shamsul said Anwar was undoubtedly “the story” of the election. “Of course he is, for me and many Malaysians,” he told Al Jazeera at the time.
In an interview on Monday afternoon with Malaysiakini, an independent news website, Anwar said his work was “not yet done”, citing the ongoing dispute over election results. He said he would need to “settle all the issues” regarding the polls before making a decision on career options.
This was encouraging news for a the rattled opposition, but hardly the clarion call to action or the confirmation of committed leadership that his defeated supporters were looking for.
In fact, in the same interview, he expressed weariness of a life of campaigning and confessed that his time teaching in the United States, at Georgetown and George Washington universities, was the best time for his family and himself.
The question among his many supporters is whether Anwar can deliver another headlong campaign push as he nears 70 years of age. More to the point, if he cannot, then who will take his place to unify the opposition and hold his former UMNO party and its broader coalition to account?
Anwar has many critics and detractors, in the halls of power and on the street. He spent six ignoble years in jail on sodomy charges, only to be partially exonerated. He’s been called a “political chameleon” for his centrist stance, and much worse. His family name has been dragged through the mud of Malaysian politics.
Yet, in defeat, Anwar just brought the Malaysian opposition its greatest victory. His personality is stamped upon it. Downstairs from Anwar’s office at his headquarters in Kuala Lumpur is the social media arm of the opposition. This is the domain of a 40-year-old Malay iconoclast named Praba Ganeson and his team.
The loose collection of 20-something techies, volunteers and political idealists, tell stories of Anwar coming to rub shoulders and quote Shakespeare and Chinese poets.
Ganeson, whom one might assume has little in common with Anwar, described his boss in three words – which might be remembered if his political career has reached its end. Anwar is “articulate and worldly”, he told Al Jazeera – and, after a thoughtful pause, “and kind”.