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"Nurul Izzah’s Resignation Threads between Idealism and Pragmatic Politics" by Norshahril Saat

2018/105, 19 December 2018

On 17 December, Nurul Izzah Anwar made the surprise announcement that she was stepping down from her position as PKR (People’s Justice Party) Vice President. The daughter of prime minister in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim is the Member of Parliament for Permatang Pauh in Penang. Nurul Izzah was ushered into politics after her father’s sacking in 1998 from his position of deputy prime minister and subsequent jailing. Anwar’s removal triggered the reformasi movement and led to the formation of Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party), a pre-cursor to the existing PKR.

No official reasons were cited for her decision, though many speculate that her frustrations with recent developments in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition led to her resignation. In her statement, Nurul Izzah expressed her regret for not making this announcement earlier. Her statement seems to come as a surprise for the PKR leadership. When approached by reporters, PKR Deputy President Azmin Ali stated that he had not been informed beforehand and that he would speak to her.

Her recent comments in a Twitter posting led many to link her unhappiness with crossovers of UMNO members—with some already joining Pakatan Harapan—as the main cause of her stepping down. She openly characterised these crossovers as a “betrayal” of the mandate given by the people in the last election. While one cannot ascertain if this is the real cause of her decision, the timing of the announcement strengthens the link.

A few days ago, five Sabah MPs and nine state assemblymen quit UMNO. Based on previous trends, these former UMNO MPs could join Bersatu (PBBM), the party led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. So far, former UMNO minister Mustapa Mohamed and former UMNO women’s youth chief Mas Ermieyati have joined Bersatu. These crossovers into Bersatu will enlarge its power base, meant to match the number of MPs from PKR and DAP in Pakatan Harapan. The prime minister has sidestepped his critics for accepting these former UMNO members, claiming that he too was a former UMNO member and his former nemesis from DAP, Lim Kit Siang, had embraced him.

Will Nurul Izzah’s resignation prevent these crossovers? If it is indeed the reason for her resignation, then it is intended to make a strong statement to other Pakatan Harapan leaders about her idealism, and that she will not fall for pragmatic politics. In a way, it signals to other PKR members and the leadership that they should not accept such crossovers and they should also be critical of Bersatu for encouraging it. In the same vein, she is also signalling to the PKR leadership for all the infighting to end. Recently, internal party elections, which saw a bitter contest for the deputy presidency post between incumbent Azmin Ali and challenger Rafizi Ramli, almost split the party. If PKR is not united, it will cease to be biggest component party in Pakatan Harapan.

To give her the benefit of the doubt, she may have personal reasons for quitting her post. But until Nurul Izzah offers an explanation for this sudden decision, the move will always be linked to the instability of the Pakatan Harapan co-operation. Nonetheless, her decision may have a positive impact on her image and political career. First, she has a mind of her own, squashing accusations that it is Anwar’s family which is running the PKR. Second, the move is necessary to make way for Anwar Ibrahim to take over as prime minister. To have the father as party president and daughter as vice-president in the same party is not a good image for the party which struggles for equality and reforms.   This does not mean that she is denied from taking a bigger role in national politics in future. She has to use this opportunity to attend the needs of her constituents in Permatang Pauh, a new seat for her.  Third, if the message from this episode is about her disagreement with crossovers, she will go down in history as a principled politician defending her ideals. Her move is a fresh approach in the personality-driven Malaysian scene.

Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, and the author of The State, Ulama and Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia (Amsterdam University Press and ISEAS Publishing).

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.