Malaysian Politics Descends Into Chaos

Despite a convincing electoral victory that returned Anwar Ibrahim to Parliament a week ago as opposition leader, it is growing increasingly certain that stalwarts in the United Malays National Organisation intend to try to put him in jail over allegations of sodomy by a former aide in his office.

The vehicle to do it is a bill rushed through the parliament that will compel Anwar to provide a fresh sample of DNA in the case, which was brought by Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, who lodged a police report at the end of June charging that the former deputy prime minister and finance minister had raped him in a luxury apartment in a Kuala Lumpur suburb.

The bill was tabled for second reading in Parliament last week on the day Anwar won an overwhelming victory in the Permatang Puah by-election that returned him to electoral politics. Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar told reporters the timing was only coincidental. Under its provisions, it provides for compulsory extraction of DNA in sexual abuse cases. Anyone refusing to give a sample would be liable to a fine of up to RM10,000 and a possible year in prison.

Anwar has refused to provide the sample, saying that it will be used to fabricate evidence and that the government already has his profile from 1998. The government says the sample from that time is too old. Anwar has said he has an unshakeable alibi for the time the offense allegedly took place. The physician who examined Saiful issued a medical report and a statutory declaration saying there was no evidence of sodomy. Nonetheless, the government, in the end, charged Anwar for consensual sodomy, which is punishable by up to 20 years in jail, although it didn’t charge Saiful for engaging in consensual sex.

If Anwar is arrested, say observers in Kuala Lumpur, there is a likelihood of riots. When he was originally arrested on the charges in July, hundreds of people took to the streets in Kuala Lumpur’s “golden triangle” Chinese area of the downtown, and at least seven truckloads of Field Reserve Unit troops lined the streets near the police headquarters where Anwar had been taken by officials.

The continuing turmoil and rising tension are beginning to take their toll on investor attitudes. Bloomberg reported Friday that the widening budget deficit, caused by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s tax cuts and spending boosts to fend off the opposition’s move to take over the country, is putting its credit rating and currency at risk. Inflation spiked to 8.5 percent in July, a 26-year high.

Abdullah Badawi, facing a rising insurrection within UMNO, called for unity Sunday as his government continued to crumble. Anwar has vowed to bring down the government by the middle of this month and take over as prime minister. Concern is rising within the party that if Anwar does indeed take over, he will wreak vengeance on those at the top of the party who brought the charges against him this time and previously when he served six years in prison on similar charges. He has repeatedly accused the government, and particularly the judiciary, of corruption. Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak appears to be a particular target.

The first time Anwar faced such allegations was in 1998. Then being groomed to succeed Mahathir Mohamad, the former and longest serving premier, he was sacked and expelled from UMNO and was eventually jailed for sodomy and abuse of power, although the sodomy allegations were overturned by the courts in 2004 after Mahathir left power. Anwar was released in that year after serving his sentence for the corruption conviction. He and his supporters have always said that the charges were trumped-up and part of a political conspiracy to destroy his political career. He has filed charges against Musa Hassan, the Inspector General of Police, and attorney general Abdul Ghani Patail, for falsifying the evidence that put him in prison.

This time around, the allegations surfaced in similar conditions -- a Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition, under siege. In March national elections, the Barisan lost its half-century grip on its two-thirds parliamentary majority, which allows it to amend the constitution but it can still pass legislation, and five states in the March 8 general election. Pakatan Rakyat, a coalition formed after the election, brings together three unlikely partners -- the fundamentalist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Anwar's predominantly Malay and middle-class Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People's Justice Party.

The decision to go after Anwar on the sexual perversion charges is viewed by many as a sign of the ruling coalition’s weakness instead of playing a waiting game in the parliament. There is a considerable likelihood that the opposition coalition will come apart, given enough time, because of the philosophical disparities between them. Leaders of PAS have already asserted that the fundamentalist Islamic party should lead the Pakatan coalition because it has greater Malay membership than Anwar’s party, Parti Keadilan, and that it has the right to the premiership. PAS leaders have complained that they have not been given enough say in the local governments that the opposition overthrew in the March elections. Having PAS in charge of the government would be anathema to the other two parties in the coalition, particularly the DAP, but also to a large extent Anwar’s own party, which is made up of middle-class Malays who find PAS’s brand of Islam too restrictive.

Thus Anwar himself is in somewhat of a race against time. If he doesn’t get his 30 supposed members of the Barisan to defect to his side before Sept. 16, as he promised, he faces the possibility that his coalition will weaken – although he could be girded by three more by-elections. Losing candidates in three districts in the states of Perlis, Kedah and Sabah have all filed court challenges seeking to overturn elections. An UMNO source says they could indeed be overturned and, given the current malaise with the government over inflation, corruption and other issues, there is a good chance that the opposition would sweep the seats, making Abdullah Badawi’s position even more precarious.

Adding to that, Bernama, the government-owned news service, reported last week that an UMNO branch on the island of Langkawi passed a resolution last week asking the octogenarian former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his wife, Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, to return to the party that a furious Mahathir quit in May after a royal commission recommended that he be investigated for improper judicial appointments. A Melaka UMNO branch supported voted to support the resolution as well. Mahathir has offered to rejoin the party in an effort, he says, to save it.