Malaysia’s Governing Coalition Goes Utterly Wobbly

After more than two decades on the stage as one of the world’s most famous political martyrs, there is a growing belief that Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim has written his own political obituary by attempting to bring down a rival, Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali, with a sex video.

Anwar denies that he had anything to do with the video, although he is widely believed to be behind it, perhaps an injustice and a supreme irony given that he was imprisoned twice, his political career derailed, over trumped-up charges that he himself was involved in homosexual encounters. So far, 11 individuals have been arrested for investigation, including Anwar’s political secretary Farhash Wafa Salvador Rizal Mubarak.

Repeated calls have been made for the arrest of an ”unnamed political party leader” in local media, code for an accusation against Anwar. Parti Keadilan Rakyat officials believe the police may call the party leader in for questioning over the affair.

The affair came to a head over last weekend when Anwar convened a three-day party conclave of 120 leaders of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which he heads, to “acknowledge and deal” with party problems.

After Anwar didn't show his support, Azmin, along with 20-odd loyalists, refused to attend, spurring speculation that he and his followers could either form a new party or move to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, where he would be likely to find a welcome mat.

The bitter political squabble that has erupted thus threatens to destroy not only Anwar’s standing but the Pakatan Harapan coalition that was delivered to office on May 9, 2018, ending more than 62 years of deeply corrupt rule by the Barisan Nasional. Irritation, if not outright disgust, is growing among the general population with the coalition, which is increasingly regarded as almost incapable of governing because of competing political rivalries, arrogance, incompetence and refusal to learn from experience.

The episode that threatens Anwar – and equally threatens Azmin in a deeply religious Muslim country – began in early June when a video surfaced purportedly showing Azmin having sex with a male in a hotel room. Haziq Abdul Aziz, a PKR member, has said he was the other person in the video. Both party leaders have attempted to demonstrate their Islamic cred with Azmin issuing thanksgiving prayers and Anwar holding a weekly Thursday prayer session

Azmin, who has repeatedly charged that the videos were faked to wreck his political career, has emerged as Anwar’s rival for primacy in Parti Keadilan Rakyat, first short-circuiting Anwar’s wife’s attempt – at Anwar’s behest in 2014 – to become chief minister of Selangor, Malaysia’s richest and most populous state. Mahathir has chosen to back Azmin, saying he believed the videos were probably faked, a telling statement about his faith in Anwar.

Anwar was imprisoned from 2015 until the May 2018 election on sexual perversion charges engineered by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, emerging from prison on the election victory. In his absence, Azmin increasingly amassed political clout.

After Pakatan Harapan’s stunning success in the general election, which resuscitated Mahathir Mohamad as the country’s prime minister at age 93, Azmin bypassed Anwar on the way to power as Mahathir’s most trusted lieutenant. Despite repeated demonstrations of fealty, it is clear that Anwar and Mahathir continue to hate each other over incidents going back to 1998 when Mahathir was accused of orchestrating allegations that Anwar himself had had homosexual relations with associates.

Those allegations, condemned by rights organizations across the globe as trumped up, resulted in five years in prison after a salacious trial. He was freed in 2004 by Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

After the 2018 election, the opposition, headed by Mahathir as leader of the tiny Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, Anwar agreed to step aside for two years to let divisions heal while Mahathir ran the country. In the succeeding months, it has become increasingly clear that Mahathir, now 94, has no intention of relinquishing power, and many in the country don’t want him to.

No one knows who recorded the videos of Azmin, if indeed it was him. But rigging honey trap hotel rooms in Malaysia has a long tradition although more often the companion is a woman. And while Anwar and Azmin destroy each other, the clear winner who has emerged is Mahathir, who has stopped promising he will step down. Interviewed in Bangkok by Bloomerg, he said no specific timeline has been set for a handover. He also told the CNBC television channel that he wouldn’t go beyond three years although he later denied giving a timeline.

His own political party began the post-election government with just 13 seats in the 121-member coalition. He has since encouraged members of the disgraced United Malays National Organization to switch to his party. If Azmin jumps ship to Parti Pribumi, he will continue to enlarge his strength. He is looking better than ever – if he can keep his contentious coalition together. He has taken advantage of Anwar’s volatility and immaturity and Azmin’s emotionalism and used their weakness to retain primacy at age 94.