Malaysia's Political Comeback Kid

Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, is poised to lead his opposition coalition to victory.
Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, is poised to lead his opposition coalition to victory. (Vincent Thian - AP)
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By Vijay Joshi
Associated Press
Monday, September 15, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Sept. 14 -- A year ago, the political career of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was in ruins, casualty of a 1998 sodomy charge.

Today, Anwar is claiming he will become prime minister, and people are taking him very seriously. Analysts say he appears to be firmly on track to attract enough defectors from the ruling coalition's ranks to secure a parliamentary majority and form Malaysia's first opposition-led government since independence in 1957.

It would mark another remarkable turnaround for a man who was once considered a star of Asian politics, only to be toppled 10 years ago and imprisoned on a conviction of having sex with a man, a crime in Malaysia. The conviction was overturned in 2004, but Anwar now faces another sodomy charge. He has strongly denied the charges in both cases, saying they were intended to terminate his political rise.

The ruling coalition has been weakened by dissent against Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and Anwar is capitalizing on that disarray. Abdullah lost much of his clout after presiding over the government's worst-ever election results in March, which opened the door to turmoil in a country that for decades has been one of Southeast Asia's most stable.

On Friday, Abdullah faced renewed public anger after his government arrested an opposition lawmaker, a journalist and an anti-government blogger under a law that allows indefinite detention without trial.

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar said the arrests were necessary to prevent racial conflict, but Anwar said they were meant to "engineer an atmosphere of fear and instability." The journalist was released Saturday after being questioned by police.

Anwar needs 30 defections for his People's Alliance to form the next government. "His chances have increased by 100 percent," said James Chin, a political science professor at Monash University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. Getting 30 defectors won't be a problem, he said. "I don't doubt they will jump if the conditions and benefits are the right amount."

The Malay-dominated National Front has ruled Malaysia continuously for more than 50 years. The coalition has maintained its legitimacy by claiming it alone can distribute the nation's resources in a way that satisfies all ethnic groups.

That myth was shattered in the March 8 general election, when Anwar stitched together his unlikely coalition on a platform of equality for all races. Together the parties won 82 seats in the 222-member House of Representatives, up from 19, as well as control of five of Malaysia's 13 states.

Still, there are serious doubts as to whether Anwar can hold together a coalition that includes Islamists and liberal freethinkers, or fulfill his political promises, including dismantling a controversial affirmative action program that favors the ethnic Malay majority in jobs, education, housing, business and a host of other areas.

Many Malays see the program as their birthright. Most ethnic Chinese and Indians see it as state-engineered discrimination.

Anwar, 61, says the affirmative action program should focus on the needy, regardless of race. He says he would free the judiciary and the media from what he calls government interference, and would guarantee religious freedom and civil liberties.

"It is not very difficult to be a better government, to control corruption, to be more just. That is quite easy. The more challenging task is to change the course of the economy," he said in a recent interview.

But some analysts here foresee not reform but instability. The political outlook has rattled investor confidence, weakening Malaysia's currency and stock markets.

Still, his promises strike a chord not just with Chinese and Indians but with Malays who think that the benefits of affirmative action have gone only to a well-connected elite. The system was devised soon after Malaysia suffered spasms of racial violence in 1969 and was intended to keep the peace by making all ethnic groups dependent on government patronage.

Chin, the political analyst, said Anwar would temper any resentment among his fellow Malays by giving them dominance in government. "There may be isolated protests, but it won't turn into a full-scale uprising by Malays," he said. "Anwar knows the game well."


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