The fight for KL’s “Jewel in the Crown”

[L-R] Nurul Izzah, Shahrizat, Periasamy. Photos by Jacqueline Ann Surin.

By Jacqueline Ann Surin
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KUALA LUMPUR: As early as an hour before nomination began at 9am on Feb 24, the streets in front of Bangsar Village were already filling up with Barisan Nasional (BN) supporters.

A corner lot opposite the shopping complex, which was once a popular mamak shop, had been turned into the operations centre for parliamentary constituency P121, more popularly known as Lembah Pantai.

Old Chinese aunties and uncles sat chatting away on what could have been any other Sunday morning for them at a kopi tiam. Except that today, blue and white BN flags were flapping in the background, and glossy photos of caretaker prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, caretaker deputy premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak and incumbent Lembah Pantai member of Parliament (MP) Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil were benignly smiling all around them.

Across the operations centre, Indian men were unfurling huge BN and Gerakan flags, while a truck parked just outside the shopping complex entrance was mobbed by supporters wanting their free t-shirt. Shiny black SUVs, plastered with the BN insignia of the dacing, lined up along one side of Jalan Telawi 1.

This is the heart of Bangsar, where the urbane, upper middle-class chatter away over café latte and chardonnay on lazy Sunday afternoons. But today is obviously no ordinary Sunday. It’s Feb 24: nomination day.

Puteri Reformasi
Several blocks away on Jalan Telawi 6, about 250 Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) supporters have gathered. The turquoise, red and white flag of the party swirled in the air and the mostly Malay, mostly young crowd brandished huge posters of Nurul Izzah Anwar, 28.

An older Malay man would not allow his photo to be taken because he is a civil servant. He said he would get into trouble for supporting the opposition but he held Nurul Izzah’s poster steady. Other supporters arrived, mostly enthusiastic Malay youths on motorbikes.

PKR supporters, Nurul Izzah and husband, Raja Ahmad Shahrir [right]

Nurul Izzah, the eldest child of former deputy premier Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and a first timer at contesting in the elections, was surrounded by supporters. By her side was her husband, Raja Ahmad Shahrir Raja Salim, a 31-year-old consultant from Kuala Lumpur.

The PKR crowd organised itself, offered up a prayer to Allah, then shouted “Takbir! Allahu-Akhbar!” Cries of “Reformasi!” followed. By 8.40am, the PKR crowd began moving to the nomination centre at the Bangsar Sports Complex on Jalan Terasek 3.

At the same time, the BN crowd had swelled to easily 1,000 people, mostly Umno members and supporters, who also began marching towards the nomination centre.

A nervous father
When Anwar, the de facto PKR adviser, arrived at the sports complex, just after 9am, the PKR crowd which had grown to about 350, enthusiastically shouted their support. “Hidup Anwar!” (“Long live Anwar!”) interspersed with more cries of “Reformasi!”

Anwar turns up at the nomination centre to lend support to his daughter

“I’m more nervous than when I was a candidate,” he admitted to reporters. He said he never imagined that his children would participate in the polls until this general election.

Anwar’s wife and Nurul Izzah’s mother, Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is contesting in Permatang Pauh, the only parliamentary seat PKR won in the 2004 election.

Anwar had spent the evening before in Permatang Pauh in Penang and returned to Kuala Lumpur at 5am to give his daughter support. “I am thankful my daughter is so committed to the struggle. She knows the risks involved and I am so proud of her.”

Still, he said, his time would be spent campaigning throughout the country – and would not just be focused on Permatang Pauh and Lembah Pantai – “to be fair” to all candidates.

Raja Ahmad said they decided just three days ago that Nurul Izzah would contest, after being swayed by a groundswell of support. “I will campaign tirelessly by her side.”

Should Nurul Izzah unseat three-term MP Shahrizat, however, she may just give up the seat so her father can run in a by-election (see Why can’t Anwar Ibrahim contest in the 2008 general election?).

“Lembah Pantai is just one of the seats we are looking at so that I can exercise my right to contest, which I’m being denied now,” Anwar said. But which seat Anwar contests in the by-election would depend on the party eventually. And in the case of Lembah Pantai, it would, of course, depend on whether his daughter can wrest the seat from the popular caretaker minister for women, family and community development.

That will be no easy task since Shahrizat beat PKR candidate Sanusi Osman by a 15,288 majority in the 2004 election. In 1999, she beat PKR candidate Zainur Zakaria, a high-profile lawyer, while in 1995, she was victorious against former lord president Tun Salleh Abas, who ran under the Semangat 46 banner.

A proven track record
“I have a proven track record,” Shahrizat said. “Whatever swing there is in votes because of Nurul Izzah, it won’t make a dent in our support,” Shahrizat said after the Election Commission announced a three-cornered fight for the constituency with the appearance on the scene of independent candidate Periasamy Nagarathnam.

Incumbent Shahrizat “The Barisan Nasional is not about age but about performance. It’s not easy to be an MP in Lembah Pantai. You have to have a strong team to serve the people here. You need a government MP to be here,” the 55-year-old Wanita Umno deputy chief said. “If you’re one person alone, it will be very tough.”

Shahrizat said she was looking forward to the next phase of development in the city’s jewel in the crown. “Bangsar is a choice address to have,” she noted.

Nurul Izzah has promised to focus on education and public security issues. She added that she wanted to show the younger generation that being a young mother did not stop one from struggling for change. Nurul Izzah and her husband have a four-and-a-half-month old baby.

How the popular daughter of Anwar will fare against a seasoned politician like Shahrizat will be worth watching.

In the meantime, surprise independent candidate, Periasamy, formerly an MIC grassroots leader who had left the party years back, said he only decided in the morning that he would contest. He said he returned to politics to campaign against the Internal Security Act (ISA).

The ISA, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, was most recently used against five Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) activists.

“The government should not use the ISA to solve political differences. I’m going to propose that the government have a specific anti-terrorist law instead of the ISA,” the 48-year-old businessman from Kelantan said. “Whatever race it may be, we must have a chance to prove our case in court. Why haven’t the Hindraf 5 been charged with any evidence of terrorist links in court?”

Lembah Pantai has a population of nearly 171,000 people but only 56,650 are registered voters. Up to 54% are Malays, 25% Chinese, 20% Indians, and 1% others.
How Lembah Pantai voters finally make up their minds about who they will vote for will be an indication of Shahrizat’s continuing popularity, Nurul Izzah’s fresh appeal for change or Periasamy’s ability to make inroads as an independent.

(With additional reporting by Fahmi Fadzil)