The People’s Justice Party (PKR), led by Malaysia’s prime-minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim, is discovering the flip side to democracy.

A perennial underdog until its surprise victory in May’s general election as part of the Pakatan Harapan coalition that ended Barisan Nasional’s 60-year monopoly on power, the PKR is trying to shake off the infighting that has dogged it as it embarks on an internal voting exercise.

A fierce battle is raging for the position of deputy president as Azmin Ali – Anwar’s long-time ally, right-hand man and economic affairs minister – faces off against Rafizi Ramli, a pollster who predicted Pakatan Harapan’s win in May and a relative newcomer thought to have found Anwar’s favour.

With the duo apparently neck and neck, accusations of vote-buying, bribery, electioneering, violence, and even tampering with the newly introduced e-voting system have arisen – as has speculation over whom Anwar will back.

Detractors have speculated that Anwar, widely considered to be backing Rafizi, is out to eliminate the threat posed by Azmin, whose new-found responsibilities on a federal level have shown his capabilities as a leader.

These machinations may appear like typical intra-party jockeying and par for the course but at stake is no less than the future of politics in post-Mahathir Malaysia. Who after Anwar and who will stand alongside Anwar are key questions the party elections will give some early answers to.

More immediately, and intertwined with the party elections, Anwar’s own designs on power are fuelling speculation. Anwar and the incumbent Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad have a deal that Mahathir will hand over the reins sometime in 2020, but some observers detect signs Anwar is growing impatient and hence the importance of the elections in deciding the fate of his closest allies.

The opposition United Malays National Organisation (Umno) party is convinced Anwar is plotting to prematurely unseat Mahathir and is seeking support for a no-confidence motion against him.

Other rumours have it that Azmin will shift to Mahathir’s party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), if he loses – potentially splitting PKR.

Thus, what might have appeared to outsiders as an internal party matter has morphed into an issue threatening to divide a government.

Anwar’s party, which commands 50 out of 222 parliamentary seats – the largest bloc in the Pakatan Harapan coalition – is known for its infighting.

That might not be uncommon in political parties, but as analysts note, PKR seems less adept than most at keeping its squabbles out of the public eye. In 2014, Azmin had a very public dispute with Khalid Ibrahim, then Chief Minister of Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state. The two were also vying for the role of deputy president, and Khalid’s loss was one of the factors that eventually sent him into the political wilderness.

Early on in the current party polls, both Rafizi and Azmin made public statements on the other’s effectiveness as a leader.

Political scientist James Chin, from Tasmania University’s Asia Institute, said the results so far showed that the two “big camps” within the party were fairly evenly matched, but he maintained that PKR would not break as long as Anwar was around.

“As long as Anwar Ibrahim is alive he will remain its leader, whether formally or informally. Even when he was in prison, his wife held the position for him in trust,” he said, comparing it to Lee Kuan Yew’s ties with Singapore’s People’s Action Party.

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“What is interesting here is that this practice of stacking branches with voters is exactly what happened in the 1987 Umno crisis – allegations of people being paid to join or bused in to vote. The personalities are different but the tricks are the same.”

The 1987 Umno crisis was triggered by a divisive party leadership election, which saw a faction, led by Razaleigh Hamzah, trying to oust Mahathir, who was then helming an Umno-led government during his first stint as prime minister. Razaleigh, a former finance minister, lost the polls by only a thin margin.

Awang Azman, from the University of Malaya’s Institute of Malay Studies, was wary of allegations that the Azmin-Rafizi tussle was a proxy war for Mahathir and Anwar, although he added this perception was understandable given “the conflict and political history” of the two veteran politicians.

Anwar and Mahathir have had a tumultuous relationship, the former serving as deputy prime minister during the latter’s first stint as prime minister until Anwar was sacked in 1998 and charged, and later jailed, for sodomy and corruption.

The two remained bitter foes until Mahathir resigned from Umno in 2016 and threw in his lot with the then-opposition coalition to lead them to electoral victory earlier this year.

The brouhaha surrounding PKR’s party polls is also due, Awang believes, to its new role in government, which puts its internal affairs under more intense scrutiny as it is no longer overshadowed by Anwar’s own position as a national reformist icon.

“Anwar often stresses the importance of issues such as money politics, brown-nosing, party loyalty and unity, and factional politics. He is sensitive to these as he is acutely aware that PKR is now in government,” he said.

“This is why all the allegations of cheating from both camps are a cause for concern, and why a minister and two members of parliament from PKR, who are candidates in the party’s ongoing elections, have been slapped with warning letters after complaints were lodged against them.”

At the end of the day, both Azmin and Rafizi are loyal to Anwar. But the big problem is succession – to whom will it all go?
Political scientist James Chin

PKR’s elections operations director Sangetha Jayakumar expressed a similar sentiment, saying that the elections were receiving greater attention because PKR was now “actually running the country”.

“We want the right people in leadership. Every party has national elections that are divided within – this is not new,” she said.

“But it bears noting that we practise one member one vote, not representational voting, and that a woman member under 35 has the option to vote for more than 130 positions [in various branches and wings of the party].

“That’s why the e-voting process is so complicated and has received criticism.”

Some of the complaints that have arisen include allegations that the electoral roll has swollen by thousands of voters over a short period, that votes are going “missing”, that there are “coding” errors in the e-voting system, and that the company which designed the system has links with PKR’s Central Electoral Committee.

Azmin has called on the election committee to investigate all reports and complaints to ensure fair and transparent polls.

Member of Parliament Wong Chen, who assisted Rafizi Ramli in setting up his polling data centre, said fresh allegations of cheating could be attributed to “panic” from certain parties who were surprised by the small margin of victory from the vote count thus far.

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Wong said the old non-electronic system was “fundamentally flawed”, pointing out that there had been reported cases of ballot-stuffing in the past and that e-voting was “impossible to rig”.

The most pressing question that the PKR internal polls have thrown up is where power rests in a future leadership. Azmin, as incumbent deputy and a federal minister, has provided PKR with an alternative direction.

However, Rafizi, despite having no role in government, has managed to keep the race for the party’s deputy presidency tight due to his popularity within the party.

Said Chin: “At the end of the day, both Azmin and Rafizi are loyal to Anwar. But the big problem is succession – to whom will it all go?”

The PKR polls will continue state by state until November 10.