Friday, February 10, 2012

alaysia’s prime minister loses most from Anwar trial

MMalaysians expressed a collective sigh of relief when Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted of sodomy charges in early January.

Their groan of dismay over the prosecution’s subsequent decision to appeal was equally palpable.

For most Malaysians, despite being divided in their opinions of Anwar, the acquittal marked a chance to move away from the sleazy politics that has long dominated daily life. Now, they expect more of the same. Aware of public exasperation, Prime Minister Najib Razak was quick to seize on the not guilty verdict as proof of his ‘reformist’ agenda and Malaysia’s supposedly independent judiciary. But the appeal leaves him stranded, inclined to delay calling a general election, and acutely aware that he is under threat as much from within his own ranks as from the opposition. It seems likely that Najib will win the next election, but unless he scores big — which seems unlikely — his leadership could be at risk.

The old guard in Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the core of the Barisan Nasional coalition government, has been trying to have Anwar convicted of sexual misconduct for more than 13 years. His first sodomy trial in the late 1990s was regarded as a miscarriage of justice, and the recently completed second trial was just as dubious, according to international legal and human rights organisations. Kuala Lumpur has a thriving gay club scene and nightlife, and the police — to their credit — do not hound homosexuals. But Anwar was hauled into court twice on a charge of ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment.

The government’s deliberate targeting of Anwar is obvious. His arrest in 2008 came soon after he led a revitalised opposition to unprecedented gains in a general election, depriving the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional of its usual two-thirds majority in parliament. Subsequently, Anwar has spent much of the past three years caught up defending himself in the sodomy trial, when he might have otherwise engaged in consolidating the opposition coalition.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these efforts, the trial has become a liability for Najib. The value in distracting Anwar and trying to knock him out politically has been offset by the damage to Najib’s reputation as a putative reformer. Conscious that the long-term electoral trend is running against the ruling coalition, which has held power since independence in 1957, Najib has positioned himself as an agent of change, who is in touch with Malaysia’s younger generation. He has attempted to roll back unpopular elements of an affirmative action program designed to benefit the country’s majority ethnic Malay community, liberalise press restrictions and replace controversial security laws, including detention without trial. Still, Najib is yet to convert the rhetoric of reform into reality, which he must do to win back the alienated centre of Malaysian politics, where cynicism and anger run deep.

Najib is encountering entrenched opposition within UMNO, particularly from conservatives who favour continued Malay privileges and the flow of patronage to the party faithful. These older UMNO Malays and their supporters in the business world and bureaucracy — especially the police and prosecutors — strongly objected to Anwar being freed and lobbied hard and successfully for the appeal. In the end, Najib will lose the most. It seems he failed to stand up to these factions — again — and lost the public relations gains from Anwar’s acquittal.

The loss of the momentum that Anwar’s freedom initially gave Najib may persuade him to wait until later this year to call an election, which must be held by March 2013. Najib must gamble that the electoral climate will improve by this time. But the economy could slow and more political scandals could emerge — rampant corruption involving UMNO politicians has already hurt his government.

Free to campaign, Anwar will lift the spirits of the three-party opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. But he is looking and sounding tired, and his own People’s Justice Party is rife with factionalism and squabbling. Although Anwar said recently: ‘My gut tells me we will win [the election]’, most analysts believe he will fall short, even if not by much.

While the opposition will surely live to fight another day, Najib may not have it so easy, even if he wins. Only the recovery of a two-thirds parliamentary majority will ensure his continued leadership of UMNO and Malaysia. Failing this, Najib could face pressure to step aside if he loses more seats, a fate that befell Abdullah Badawi, his predecessor.

By Barry Wain Writer-in-Residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.East Asia Forum

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