August 25th, 2008 by Hafiz Noor Shams
From the very beginning, the 2008 Permatang Pauh by-election is not about whether Anwar Ibrahim will win it. It is a question of how much will he win. The magnitude of his win could answer several more questions too but not all.
The first question asks whether support for Anwar Ibrahim has changed since March 8. It is tempting to link the magnitude of his win with support which he will receive at the ballot box but a person makes such connection at his own peril. The reason is that there is really no benchmark to measure this in a conclusive manner.
The kosher way of measuring whether support for Anwar Ibrahim has increased or otherwise based on difference in magnitude: this win needs to be compared with Anwar Ibrahim’s last win in the same place. This method will reasonably control noise that would otherwise drown the signal which we seek.
The problem is that Anwar Ibrahim did not contest in the last election in Permatang Pauh. Instead, it was his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. And the last time Anwar Ibrahim contested there was so long ago in 1995 when the situation was very different. The very different scenes make the comparison between the 1995 and the 2008 results useless in answering the question.
Any comparison between tomorrow’s by-election and the result of March 8 comes closer in answering which voters prefer better between Anwar and Wan Azizah. Even this pretends that the effect of their opponents is practically negligible.
The closest possibly way of measuring whether support for Anwar Ibrahim has changed for better or for worse based on tomorrow result is to assume that Wan Azizah is a proxy for Anwar. The assumption of proxy however ignores any individual effect that exists.
This same assumption however cannot be used to measure how damaging all the negative politics — especially the allegation of sodomy and the subsequent oath on the Koran — employed against Anwar.
While it is true that all that attacks launched by Barisan Nasional against the former Deputy Prime Minister will have an adverse effect to his prospect of being elected into office, it is really hard to know what is the exact or even the rough magnitude of that effect based simply on result of Permatang Pauh by-election. This is especially so when accusation of sodomy is really a weapon which cannot be used against Wan Azizah: Wan Azizah and Anwar are very different for the obvious reason even if proxy is a useful statistical tool. This difference renders the proxy method somewhat unreliable than it usually is.
A better way to measure the effect of the allegations made against Anwar Ibrahim is to have consistent polling, which we probably have thanks to the Merdeka Centre. Alas, that sample may not necessarily describe the preference of voters registered in Permatang Pauh. And result from the Permatang Pauh definitely cannot be used to gauge national sentiment in a satisfactory manner.
An easier question to answer with regard the upcoming by-election is which between Anwar Ibrahim and Wan Azizah Wan Ismail do voters of Permatang Pauh prefer. Another concerns the support level of Parti Keadilan Rakyat among the voters of Permatang Pauh. In both cases, the methodology in finding out the answers is straight forward.
So, do keep these things in mind before you read any political analysis by so-called pundits. Obviously, these questions put forth are not exhausting. Neverthless, the question are useful in identifying sweep conclusion. And sweeping conclusion is the last thing we need to understand the very messy political scenario we are currently in.