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BATTLEGROUND: Gerakan recharges to wrest Penang with the rising strength of state BN leadership
PARTI Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia is still down, but certainly not out. Party members in its former power base of Penang, in particular, are finding it difficult to recover from its electoral whitewash in 2008. Infighting is said to slow down recovery efforts.
Four years on, demoralised Gerakan leaders -- like those in other Barisan Nasional component parties in states now governed by Pakatan Rakyat such as Penang, Selangor, Kedah and Kelantan -- still struggle to become an effective opposition.
Penang has been especially hard for Gerakan, which went from ruling the state since 1969 to a wipeout in 2008. BN was left with 11 seats in the 40-seat state legislative assembly, all held by Umno. But the Gerakan leadership is far from ready to raise the white flag. The party's rejuvenation exercise was given a morale boost when the party's secretary-general, Teng Chang Yeow, was made Penang Barisan Nasional chief five months ago.
The post is an unenviable one as it comes with the heavy responsibility of winning more seats, if not wrest control of Penang. As BN state leader, Teng is widely considered the Penang chief-minister-designate should BN retake the state.
Can Teng, with the rising strength of BN component parties, do what political analysts say is a miracle -- bring back BN to power in Penang?
A theory many BN politicians shared when Penangnites voted out the Gerakan-led government four years ago was the near-impossibility of regaining the state at the next general election.
The scepticism was understandable. Gerakan was decimated; DAP, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Pas bagged 29 seats, showing BN the door after 39 years in power.
Today, almost everything that happens or has happened in Penang is politicised by the ruling party.
Gerakan president and immediate past chief minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon continues to be DAP's whipping boy. Repairing negative perceptions is thus not an easy task.
During an exclusive interview with the New Sunday Times in June, Teng admitted that public perceptions of BN in Penang had not changed much since 2008, with Pakatan leaders' continuous and often successful manipulation of public opinion.
However, he believed Gerakan could still convince the people that it is a better choice. Gerakan now has a more committed team looking into Penang development issues.
Gerakan was only a year-old op position party when it made its presence felt in the 1969 general election. It captured Penang, winning 16 out of 24 state seats.
In Selangor, it won four state seats -- two each in Perak and Kedah, and one each in Malacca and Penang. The party also had eight representatives in Dewan Rakyat.
Gerakan is now an opposition party in Penang, but lacks capable and credible leaders to run in elections. Back in 1969, the party had many strong personalities. When the party was formed on March 24, 1968, its six founders -- Prof Syed Hussain Alatas of University of Singapore; Dr Tan Chee Khoon, member of parliament for Batu, Selangor, and former leader of the Labour Party; Dr J.B.A. Peter, president of the Malaysian Medical Association; Dr Lim Chong Eu, MP for Tanjong, Penang, and former president of the United Democratic Party; Prof Wang Gungwu of Universiti Malaya; and V. Veerapan, lawyer and former leader of the Labour Party -- were all influential figures.
The multiracial party has gone through phases of evolution, including joining the Alliance, the predecessor of BN, in 1972. The party had a relatively smooth succession of leaders, from Syed Hussein to Chong Eu, Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik and finally incumbent Koh, who has to bear the blame for Gerakan's poor electoral performance in 2008, as he was at that time acting party president.
If the focus at last year's national delegates conference was on Koh, this year, all eyes will be on Teng when some 2,000 delegates convene at the party headquarters in Wisma PGRM, Kuala Lumpur, for the two-day conference beginning Sept 29. They will want to know what Teng has on the drawing board to counter the DAP-led Pakatan in Penang and perhaps a progress report on the party's initiatives.
Many among the party faithful remember the 47-year-old Teng as the giant killer who defeated DAP chairman Karpal Singh for the Padang Kota state seat in the 1995 general election, with a majority of more than 2,500 votes. They believe that Teng is an aggressive fighter, who can give BN a fighting chance in Penang.
Teng himself believes he can prove his mettle or he would not have vowed to quit his post if the state Gerakan came out with another duck at the next general election.
The past several months have seen Gerakan members growing in motivation. Even Koh has turned vocal, joining the chorus in counterattacking Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, whom he nicknamed "Mis-Leader", at the Penang Gerakan delegates' conference last month.
The Gerakan president, who had kept a low profile in Penang since Teng took over the state BN leadership, accused Lim of misleading the people on issues such as hillslope development projects.
But delegates are still keen for Koh, 63, to shed light on the party's leadership transition plan. He is not contesting any seat, a signal that his term as Gerakan president may be nearing an end. Critics allege he has failed to gain political mileage from his ministerial post as minister in the prime minister's department.
He is also seen as incapable of overcoming negative public perceptions among the Chinese community of Gerakan since before the 2008 general election.
At the NDC, scheduled to be opened by BN chairman and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, delegates are expected to agree to postpone party elections so the party can concentrate on the approaching general election.
Najib, for certain, will send an inspirational message to lift Gerakan's spirits in improving its standing in the eyes of Malaysians.