Anwar's Bid for Federal Power: Wishful Thinking?

After winning his by-election Tuesday with a decisive 66 percent of the 46,811 votes to return to parliament as opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim now starts the endgame that he hopes will make him Malaysia’s prime minister. It probably won’t be as easy as he is trying to make it look.

Anwar and his party faithful paint the win in the Malay-majority constituency in a rural part of Penang state as an endorsement of him as potential premier, making his Pakatan Rakyat the dominant coalition in parliament. As Malays make up about 60 percent of the national population, support from this ethnic group is crucial for legitimacy to lead the nation and for Pakatan to form a stable federal government, which Anwar promises to create by luring 40-odd Barisan Nasional lawmakers over to his coalition. Currently, Pakatan has 81 federal lawmakers, the Barisan has 140 and one is independent.

But some analysts say that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's weak leadership is in part to blame and the by-election result as much a rejection of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the largest ethnic party in the Barisan Nasional, as it was approval of Anwar. Agitation for Badawi’s scalp among the UMNO faithful, which has been considerable since the disastrous March 8 election that lost the ruling coalition its two-thirds majority parliamentary grip, is growing and intraparty factionalism is rife. Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who personally led the losing UMNO campaign against Anwar, is also facing increasing unrest over his leadership.

Besides putting Anwar in a parliamentary seat as opposition leader across the aisle from Abdullah Badawi, however, the by-election doesn’t change the big picture immediately. The number of national coalition and opposition lawmakers in parliament remains the same, one longtime Malaysian analyst pointed out. Anwar took the seat vacated by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, shortly after he was accused by a onetime aide in his office of sodomy. Asked about the implications of the by-election, the analyst brushed off Anwar's comeback as a "non-event", adding, "The only difference is that Anwar will become opposition leader instead of Wan Azizah."

It is hardly a non-event. But there is the question of keeping the fractious opposition coalition together. The fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, in particular already feels it has been given a raw deal in states won by the opposition, according to the analyst, with PAS leaders asking why their role in state governments has been minimized. PAS feels it is the strongest party in terms of numbers, and that it provided the electoral foot soldiers, branch networks and logistical support that enabled the opposition to do well in the March election. That sits uneasily with the largely Chinese Democratic Action Party, the third leg in the opposition coalition.

At the PAS annual general assembly, some PAS speakers also pointed out that PAS worked together with Anwar in 1981 in Abim, a Muslim-based NGO that made Anwar’s name nationally, and that Anwar abandoned to join UMNO, from which he was ultimately ejected by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

It is a “tricky dilemma for Anwar,” said the analyst. “If he fails to reassure his Malay/Muslim supporters that they still enjoy dominance, he will be in big trouble. But if he tries to burnish his Malay/Muslim credentials, he risks alienating his non-Malay supporters and he risks being perceived as an UMNO clone. Anwar was part of UMNO for 16 years; he thrived in UMNO's money politics culture and he was successful in UMNO because of his image as a strong Malay and Muslim leader.”

It is also questionable, despite his claim of having already done it, how many defecting federal lawmakers Anwar can lure from Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia, which between them have 54 parliamentary seats. But animosity between Anwar and Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, who heads Sarawak's biggest party and has 14 federal lawmakers, suggests that few of the defections will come from Taib’s party, Persaka Bumiputera Bersatu. Taib is allegedly ticked off by disparaging remarks that Anwar made in the Sarawak state election in 2006.

Although Taib has reportedly said that he will support whoever takes over the federal government, loyalties in East Malaysian politics are even more fluid than in Peninsular Malaysia.

As the Barisan has 30 of 31 federal lawmakers in Sarawak, that leaves only another 16 lawmakers from smaller parties for Anwar to try to poach. Unless the lawmakers join one of the parties in Pakatan, Anwar may face the possibility of further fragmenting his precarious coalition if more parties leap onboard.

Sabah may offer the best hope, with Jeffrey Kitingan driving the charge in the state. After all, Kitigan, the analyst says, has plenty of experience in party-hopping, having crossed over from the opposition to the Barisan in 2000. It was also reported that Anwar was the mastermind behind defections which crumbled the government of Jeffrey's brother, Joseph Pairin Kitingan after Pairin's party, Parti Bersatu Sabah won state elections in 1994.

Aware of these threats, Abdullah Badawi distributed governmental largesse to both Sabah and Sarawak shortly after the March 8 elections that proved to be a disaster for the national coalition. East Malaysian politics traditionally have been driven by timber and money. Loyalty, especially to peninsular parties like UMNO, is more malleable.

While Anwar may have find it harder to put together his winning coalition than analysts think, UMNO and the rest of the national coalition are perhaps in even worse shape.

"What's clear is that the people rejected the prime minister, and this is also a big blow to Najib," a lawyer closely connected to the Mahathir wing of UMNO told Asia Sentinel in an email interview.

"UMNO could well be dead after this,” he said. “I think the PM made the mistake of dismissing Anwar's threat (of taking over the federal government). It may not happen all at once in September but he's edging there and given time who knows, with discontent so high."

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the 71-year-old politician prince and longstanding contestant for the country's top job, is leading the charge in UMNO against Abdullah.

"Our leadership is rejected by the rakyat (people) and, moreover, is rejected by our own members," the onetime finance minister said in a statement released Tuesday. "The Barisan Nasional’s vote count was less than the number of UMNO members in the constituency. Within and among our component parties we ran a poorly coordinated and listless campaign against a motivated opposition. What scraps of credibility the Prime Minister and his deputy had left after March 8 are gone."

Mahathir, the former and longest serving premier who anointed Abdullah Badawi as his successor in 2003, has turned into the besieged premier's most vitriolic critic. After a Royal Commission suggested the Attorney-General investigate Mahathir for judicial corruption, which includes judge-fixing at the highest level, he loudly quit UMNO and is now an avid blogger at chedet.com.

"Listen to, look at what is demonstrated by voters in Permatang Pauh,” Mahathir wrote. “They did not vote for Dato Seri Anwar and PKR. They voted for that Barisan Nasional and UMNO to lose. The increased majority for Dato Seri Anwar compared to March 8 is definitely because in a period of only five months, support for BN and UMNO has further deteriorated. When do you want to wait till, UMNO members, before you realise Dato Seri Abdullah's leadership needs to be ended?"

Yesterday, he offered to rejoin UMNO to save it.