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Gerakan founding member and former Penang party chief Tan Gim Hwa was given a show-cause letter this week as to why he should not be expelled from the party. This is not surprising, especially after the party took the drastic step in freezing the activities of two divisions and 15 branches last month, seen as the harbinger of a clean-up exercise.

Unlike Tan, other protagonists within Gerakan, or more accurately opponents of Penang Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon, did not stay to let the party kick them out. Instead, they took a more pro-active action: mass resignations from the party.

This include Gerakan founding member Lim Ee Heong who quit the party citing dissatisfaction with the leadership of party president Dr Lim Keng Yaik. He was followed by an exodus of 400 members. They bailed out, they said, because they could no longer continue being in the party under the present leadership. According to Lim Ee Heong, it was a case of "beh tahan liau" (Hokkien for "cannot stand it anymore").

Indeed, main figures in the anti-Koh faction have gradually resigned from Gerakan since the middle of last year, beginning with party stalwart Tan Kok Peng. This was followed by Lim Boo Chang and Lim Chien Aun, four days after winning the Datuk Keramat and Bayan Lepas state seats respectively in the recent elections. Another key leader, Goh Cheng Teik, left soon after.

However, the split within Gerakan is not new. It has been festering since former Penang chief minister Lim Chong Eu was bundled out by DAP strongman Lim Kit Siang in 1990 elections.

One of the major bones of contention between the two Gerakan factions involved the development of the Penang Hill. It was believed that the project was approved by Lim and his decision was reversed by Koh when he became the new chief minister following protests from environmentalists.

Koh's opponents, both within and outside the party, have criticised the Chief Minister for being indecisive and ineffective. However, Koh's move to freeze the Bagan and Nibong Tebal divisions and 15 branches showed that he may not be the indecisive leader he was accused of when it comes to protecting his own political future.

According to Penang political observer Loh Choon Yin, Koh had however washed his hands of the decision to punish the unruly divisions and branches, and had instead claimed that it was a party's decision.

DAP MP for Tanjong Chon Kon Yew said that Koh's weak leadership was obvious in the way he handled issues in the state assembly and government. "He tends to listen to Umno, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and other national leaders too much," he said. While Chon conceded that Koh's gentleman persona has drawn public support, "the criticism of his lack of the authority has certain validity".

Nanyang Siang Pau chief leader writer Teoh Kian Hoon pointed out that Koh's weakness is a "product of the BN's consensus spirit". He added that "Gerakan's fair and democratic spirit of a Malaysian Malaysia" as mentioned by Lim Ee Heong, has now been replaced by BN's politics of consensus, which could be interpreted as capitulation on the part of the party.

A senior journalist, who asked not to be named, said that Umno's influence in Penang could not be underestimated. Umno, he said, has been using the "Chinese to balance Chinese" tactic to create conflicts between the two major Chinese parties in the state, MCA and Gerakan.

"It is in the interest of Umno to pit Gerakan against MCA. It is the usual divide-and-rule method of BN," echoed Chon.

However, the resignations of party stalwarts and the so-called "princes group" - the children of party founders - mean that they have no other choice but to join MCA since they have vowed not join the Opposition.

MCA, however, dare not accept all the Gerakan ex-members, said the senior reporter. An internal party source revealed that MCA did not even raise the issue of a potential MCA deputy chief minister to the Prime Minister in a meeting last month. MCA had initially hoped to lead the state government in Penang after the party ended up with more seats than its rival after the resignations of the two Lims from Gerakan. However, Mahathir gave Koh his blessing to remain as chief minister.

The mass resignations in Gerakan, and the plot to remove Koh as chief minister, has however unwittingly benefitted Koh. With his rivals all but gone, Koh is now in a position to wrest a higher post in the party hierarchy, perhaps even the party's No. 1 post.

Party leader Lim Keng Yaik has openly anointed Kerk Choo Ting as his heir apparent, but until now Kerk's position remains weak, especially when half of the central working committee members are from Penang. "A strengthened Koh within the party might vie for Kerk's positon," Loh said.

In the 1980s, Koh joined Gerakan together with Kerk with the slogan "joining BN to correct BN". The way is now open for Koh to challenge his old colleague. Whether BN has been "corrected" is, of course, a forgotten issue.