Dennis Ignatius: Can Rafizi save PKR?

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The dynamic between Rafizi and Anwar is going to be critical.

Rafizi has come in from the cold to stage a remarkable victory in the recent PKR elections. His victory speaks volumes about the hunger for change within the party. No doubt his supporters in and out of the party are thrilled. Indeed, many see him as the last hope for turning around a party that has been steadily losing ground.


Rafizi himself comes across as a man with an almost messianic zeal to rescue PKR and return it to power. He came back, he says, to save the party. He is passionately convinced that PKR, with its message of social justice, inclusiveness and good governance, if properly constituted and led, could easily become the nation’s natural governing party.

But messianic leaders are often loved by the people but viewed with suspicion by their own colleagues. In Rafizi’s case, those suspicions are exacerbated by his proclivity for hubris and bluntness – like publicly running down his party president and condemning other senior colleagues as he ascended to the second highest position within the party. If he is not careful, it could get in the way of the good things he hopes to accomplish.

It is also clear from his statements that he doesn’t think much of Anwar’s leadership nor that of some of the senior leaders around Anwar. He sees Anwar as a fading star pursuing failed strategies that have failed to resonate with voters. In a rather unkind cut, he publicly noted that Nurul Izzah is more popular than her father. He is critical too of what he sees as Anwar’s willingness to compromise with parties like Bersatu in order to secure a path to Putrajaya. He’s not wrong, of course, but there are less provocative ways to get his message across.

One has to wonder, given his negative views about Anwar, why he did not challenge Anwar for the presidency of the party as many were hoping he would. Was it to avoid a bitter and divisive leadership battle this close to an election or did he lack the confidence to take on his much-diminished leader?

Instead, he appears to have settled on an alternative plan: engineer a takeover of the party by getting his team elected to key leadership positions. His team now controls three of the four vice-president posts, two-thirds of the central leadership council and some 75% of divisions across the country. Nurul Izzah’s return as an appointed vice-president will further strengthen his hand but he will also have to contend with a party secretary-general and others in leadership positions who are Anwar loyalists.

Going forward, the dynamic between Rafizi and Anwar is going to be critical. Can they work together and evolve a new partnership that will draw on the strengths of both men or will they continue to spar with each other?

Though party officials have dismissed all talk of friction between the two, the reality is never that simple. When both sides are convinced of their own infallibility, compromise becomes difficult. Besides, bruised egos don’t heal easily.  Whatever it is, PKR cannot afford yet more internal strife; it will be incumbent on Rafizi now to demonstrate that he has what it takes to accommodate his detractors and help unite the party.

Since the party election, he has lost no time reshaping the party in his own image. Insider sources say he wants to quickly overhaul almost everything about the party from strategy to infrastructure. His number one priority will be Malay voters without whom no victory is possible. For that he must aggressively position PKR as a viable alternative to UMNO. He is also anxious to step up his ‘Ayuh Malaysia’ campaign to re-energize the party base, strengthen party finances and ready the party’s election machinery.

One thing that has been missing in the unfolding PKR narrative is a serious policy discussion. After the euphoria of his return dies down, voters will want to know what exactly Rafizi is offering them. His new initiative to challenge Najib replete with police reports only elevates Najib to a level he does not deserve. As a big proponent of data-driven politics, Rafizi must surely know that voters are hungry for real change and meaningful policies that address issues like inflation, jobs, economic growth and good government.

The other interesting thing to watch is how he will relate to other political parties. Rafizi is not just opposed to the so-called big tent idea – a grand collation of opposition parties to go against UMNO – he has little time for Muda, Pejuang and Gerak Independent as well. To him, PKR is better off on its own particularly as he is convinced that groups like Muda, Pejuang and Gerak Independent are unlikely to survive the next election.

Rafizi now has a huge task ahead of him but he has also got a number of things going for him. Along with Nurul Izzah, he’s arguably the most popular leader in the country today and enjoys the support of a plurality of voters. He has a stronger, younger, more media savvy team in control of the party apparatus. He is uncompromising about the kind of policies Malaysia needs to regain its position in the world.  If anyone can restore hope and galvanize reform-minded Malaysians, it is he. No doubt many Malaysians will want to see him succeed. – Dennis Ignatius