Anwar — Do-Or-Die By-election


Voters in northern Malaysia tomorrow will decide the political future of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has claimed that he will win a seat in parliament and then topple the federal government by September 16 to become the country’s prime minister.

Anwar, who leads the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat, announced that he would contest the by-election in the Penang area shortly after a 23-year-old former aide accused him of forced sodomy in June. The former deputy prime minister claims the charge is part of a political conspiracy to thwart his plans to wrest power from the Barisan Nasional, the coalition which has ruled the country since independence in 1957.

Since the initial accusation, however, the government has backtracked and charged Anwar with consensual sodomy, which is still punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

For Anwar, the election is a homecoming of sorts. He first won a parliamentary seat in Penang in 1982. He was then a rising Islamic student activist who had served time in prison under the draconian Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial, after leading demonstrations in support of poor farmers. Mahathir Mohamad, who became prime minister the year before after campaigning under the slogan "Clean, Efficient and Trustworthy," invited Anwar into the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the biggest ethnic party, to boost the party's Islamic credentials and fend off the rise of political Islam, as UMNO was widely seen as a liberal party.

Anwar rose through the ranks but was eventually sacked by Mahathir in 1998 and was later hauled into court and jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy in 1999. Since then, the seat has been held by his wife Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who vacated it in August. Those were overturned in 2003. Anwar was then released after serving his corruption conviction.

The by-election, analysts and observers say, is essentially a referendum on whether Anwar would be an effective prime minister at the helm of an unwieldy coalition that includes his own predominantly ethnic Malay and middle-class Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party; the largely Chinese Democratic Action Party and the fundamentalist Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS.

Anwar has presented himself as the "prime-minister-in-waiting" and said that about 30 Barisan lawmakers will jump over to the opposition by September 16, effectively transferring power. The Barisan, on the other hand, has mostly dismissed Anwar's claims as ludicrous and said he trying to destabilize the government. Currently the Pakatan has 81 lawmakers to Barisan's 140.

In the March 8 general election, the Barisan lost its 50-year grip on a two-thirds parliamentary majority as well as five states, including the most developed ones, Selangor and Penang. It also lost the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur, the capital, and won only one out of 11 parliamentary seats in the area.

The disastrous electoral showing under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi intensified the infighting within UMNO and decimated other large component ethnic parties – the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. The Barisan now faces leadership crises in all its constituent parties.

As if that was not messy enough, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor have been linked in some reports to the gruesome 2006 murder of 28-year-old Mongolian translator Altantuya Shariibuu. Despite considerable evidence in court and statutory declarations outside it pointing to Najib, he has neither been questioned nor named in court On Saturday, Najib swore on the Koran that he has nothing to do with the murder and never met Altantuya.

In the by-election, it is crucial for Anwar to gain a convincing number of Malay votes, which make up about 69 percent of the constituency. Failure could cost him his legitimacy as a Malay leader and making any federal government under him shaky, as in Perak state, where the Pakatan won only marginal Malay support and formed a coalition government based on the strength of the Chinese-backed Democratic Action Party.

Traditionally, with Malay politics, the cards to play are race and religion. In culturally segregated Malaysia, race and religion matter.

Malays are defined as Muslims by the Constitution and sodomy is a sin in Islam as well as being a statutory offense. As expected, the election has turned into a pseudo trial on the sodomy allegation, with UMNO showing nightly screenings on large screens of Anwar’s accuser, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, swearing on the Koran that the 61-year-old politician raped him in an apartment in Kuala Lumpur.

In a country where the Chinese and Indians are regarded as immigrants no matter how long they have been there, UMNO has championed Malay rights and privileges. Under Mahathir, Malay supremacy became a mantra that promised to elevate Malays from socio-economic backwardness. The country’s New Economic Policy, a race-based affirmative action policy that sets quotas for Malays in education, government service and economic opportunity has become sacrosanct.

UMNO has labelled Anwar a traitor to Malays for proposing to replace the NEP with an income-based poverty eradication program. Anwar has retaliated by saying that UMNO betrayed the Malays because the system has enriched only a rent-seeking elite.

It remains to be seen whether racial and religious rhetoric will overshadow more pressing concerns like inflation, public discontent over a 40 percent hike in fuel prices and UMNO's plummeting credibility. But local bookies are giving good odds of Anwar winning the seat, Reuters reported, saying that odds makers favour Anwar 3 to 1 to win with a majority of 15,000 votes in the by-election.