Malaysia State Constitutional Crisis

Any indication that Malaysia's courts were becoming independent of the government disappeared from view again Tuesday when the five-member Federal Court ruled that United Malays National Organization stalwart Zambry Abdul Kadir is the rightful chief minister of the state of Perak, the country's second biggest and one of its richest.

The state has been caught a constitutional crisis since May of 2009, with the government paralyzed by the controversy over who was actually in charge. Perak had been controlled by the national opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat as a result of the March 2008 national election, with Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin as chief minister. However, then-Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak engineered the defection of three lawmakers, bringing the government to a halt in a 28-28 tie. Upon their defection, Sultan Raja Azlan Shah immediately ordered Nizar to vacate his position and installed Zambry in his place.

That kicked off a melee in which 65 people were arrested. Ahead of Tuesday's decision, Rais yatim, the the Information Communication and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, was quoted by the state-owned national wire service Bernama as calling on the people to be calm.

"We should respect the decision irrespective of whether it favors A or B. We are confident in our judicial system and in the way the law is administered," Bernama quoted him as saying.

"The mood is somber," said a Malay woman in Ipoh, the state capital. "I think people are going to just have to wait for the general election," which is probably three years away. "The feeling is that the verdict about Nizar and Zambry was decided a long time ago."

Kuala Lumpur High Court Judge Abdul Aziz Rahim ruled on May 11 that the sultan lacked the authority to remove Nizar without a vote of confidence in the statehouse, only to have the appellate court put his decision in abeyance a few hours later. The case – and the Perak state government – have been stalled as the Federal Court, the country's highest, took up the decision in November and has chewed on it ever since.

The ruling, led by Court of Appeal president Alauddin Mohd Sheriff, was built on the premise that the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, controls 31 votes in the Perak statehouse although no vote has ever been taken, and while the three defectors are said to be leaning towards the Barisan, they have given no official indication that they would cross the aisle. The Election Commission refused a letter proclaiming the realignment of their loyalty, setting the stage for the constitutional crisis.

When Nizar refused to go, instead of waiting for Judge Abdul Aziz's original ruling, elite federal Field Reserve Unit police invaded the statehouse on May 7 to drag opposition Speaker V. Sivakumar out of the chambers amid flying furniture and protests that resulted in the arrest of 65 people. As far as can be determined, it is the first time in Malaysian history that federal police had ever entered a legislature.

The ruling appears unlikely to end the continuing political uncertainty in either Perak or the government. Political analysts in Kuala Lumpur say the logical solution to the stalemate – a state popular by-election to determine the makeup of the statehouse – is unlikely because Najib and the Barisan do not believe they could win it.

The state, long a tin mining center, has an extremely large Chinese and Indian population and the Chinese have largely abandoned the Barisan because of the collapse into scandal of the Malaysian Chinese Association, which is embroiled in infighting over the disappearance of billions of dollars in the attempt to turn Port Klang, 60 km. west of Kuala Lumpur, into a multimodal port.

The Barisan instead appears to be counting on time to bring the voters, particularly disaffected ethnic Malays who have abandoned UMNO for the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia and Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People's Justice Party, because of a long series of scandals and outright crimes.

However, Anwar is on trial in Kuala Lumpur in what has been widely billed as Sodomy 2, on charges of sodomizing a former aide in a trial that to everybody but the government itself appears to be built on dubious allegations that were laid to derail the first realistic challenge to the ruling national coalition since the country was formed.

In the meantime, his party is beset by infighting in several state assemblies, particularly Penang and Selangor, with a growing number of restive lawmakers threatening to leave the opposition coalition and return to the Barisan. Three have been brought before a disciplinary committee of the opposition coalition seeking answers to questions over their use of personal expense accounts.

The coalition that Anwar cobbled together has been an unlikely one from the start, with the Islamic, largely rural and fundamentalist PAS on one side and the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party on the other, with Anwar's moderate, urban Malays in the middle. Zulkifli Nordin, a member of Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, was quoted publicly earlier this week as predicting mass resignations over the next two to three weeks over tensions with the DAP and PKR's difficulty in dealing with them.

"The problem was that Anwar rounded up a bunch of incompetents to run in 2008, and disillusionment was so great with UMNO that a lot of people got voted into office who should never have been voted into office," said a businessman in Kuala Lumpur. The opposition coalition, he said, has thus never been able to capitalize on its gains by actually paying attention to governing. At the same time, the opposition has been harried by Najib's use of law enforcement powers including the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and others to bring opposition lawmakers in on charges that many observers believe are superfluous.

Nonetheless, the court's decision appears certain to reinforce popular opinion that Malaysia's judiciary is thoroughly in the pockets of UMNO. That isn't helped by the case against Anwar, who is charged with having consensual sex with the former aide, a charge that is extremely rare in Malaysia and especially Kuala Lumpur, where gay bars abound and homosexuality isn't particularly condemned despite the fact that it is nominally against the law. An examination of the evidence against him in similar charges in 1998 leads to the overwhelming conclusion that it was concocted to derail his political career.

The case has been put on temporary hold as Anwar's lead counsel, Karpal Singh, seeks to disqualify the presiding judge, Mohd Zabidin Mohd Diah.