Can the opposition leader translate electoral success into a parliamentary majority?
Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim staged a dramatic comeback Tuesday with a victory in a by-election that puts him again at the heart of Malaysian politics. With his apparent return to parliament, he has taken the first step towards his promised ouster of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition as prime minister.
The former deputy prime minister has vowed to take power for the opposition on September 16 by luring ruling coalition lawmakers to his side.
Anwar won about 60 percent of the votes in his rural northern district in Penang in a vote seen as a crucial test of ethnic loyalty in a country where race has long been the determining factor in political success. He soundly drubbed his opponent, Arif Shah Omar Shah, the candidate of the United Malays National Organisation, in a lurid campaign in which a variety of UMNO officials charged him with being a lackey of the United States and world Jewry in addition to having committed sodomy with a former aide.
UMNO also called Anwar a traitor to his race for proposing to replace the countr's 40-year-old New Economic Policy, an affirmative action program for the majority Malay race, with an income-based poverty eradication program. Anwar retaliated by saying UMNO betrayed the Malays because the system has enriched only a rent-seeking elite.
Some 70 percent of the voters in the district are ethnic Malays and Muslims, whose allegiance since the country’s independence has been with UMNO, the leading party in the ruling coalition. It appeared as the polls closed that voters had shrugged off the charges against him. An estimated 70 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.
The big question is not just whether Anwar can convince enough federal lawmakers to cross the line and join the opposition, which currently has 81 lawmakers in the parliament while the Barisan has 140. There are also nagging questions for the stability of Anwar’s unwieldy coalition of his own predominantly ethnic Malay and middle-class Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party; the largely Chinese and pro-socialist Democratic Action Party and the Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS. There have already been serious strains between the fundamentalist PAS and members of the DAP and Keadilan.
Keeping the three ideologically opposed parties from breaking up will require enormous skill and a good deal of luck. Already, the three are fighting for membership, with PAS regarding attempts by the DAP to recruit ethnic Malays as an encroachment on the Islamic party’s turf and vice versa. Many political analysts forecast a long period of instability for what heretofore has been one of Southeast Asia's most stable countries.
For instance, Anwar also could face problems from a bill that governs the use of DNA in criminal cases, which was tabled in the parliament yesterday for second reading over opposition protests. Home Affairs Minister Syed Hamid Albar rather unconvincingly told reporters the timing of the bill was only coincidental
“There is no sinister motive, don't look at it as though there is one," Syed said yesterday after tabling the bill. Anwar, facing charges that he sodomized a 23-year-old aide, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, in June, refused to provide DNA to police, saying the sample might be misused in a bid to frame him.
The bill, which appears certain to pass given the current control by the national coalition, provides for compulsory extraction of DNA in sexual abuse cases. It would also provide for the establishment of a forensic DNA Databank, the use of DNA profiles and other provisions. Anyone refusing to give a sample would be liable to a fine of up to RM10,000 and a possible year in prison. Although it would be extremely unusual in commonwealth law to make the bill retroactive, the question is whether previous samples could be used as evidence.
Anwar, once an UMNO star politician and the protégé of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, was ousted from the party and arrested in 1998 on similar charges of sexual perversion. He was forced to give a DNA sample at that time. The charges, which were ultimately reversed after Mahathir left office, resulted in Anwar’s spending six years in prison.
Malaysian politics have been in turmoil since national elections on March 8, when the Barisan lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority it enjoyed for 50 years.
Since that time, UMNO has been engaged in a furious internal struggle, with Mahathir accusing Prime Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi of wrecking the economy and the political structure of the party itself. After charges were laid against the former prime minister for rigging the judiciary for political reasons, he quit the party and has since engaged in an effort to bring down Badawi.
The infighting has sapped the morale of the government and resulted in a descending stock market. Concerns over inflation and magnitude of the loss raise further questions about Abdullah Badawi's leadership and whether there will be more political instability. UMNO nominations start next month, with Badawi a target. UMNO's inability to thwart Anwar in the Pematang Puah by-election, despite the spending of vast amounts of money, doesn't help. Given questions over Badawi's leadership, the rising prices of energy and food have contributed to the souring of voter opinion on the Barisan. Widespread charges of corruption, particularly over the fixing of judicial posts, have also contributed to the malaise.