Malaysia's Anwar in Stress, Under Fire
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, under the stress of a long-running trial accusing him of sexual perversion, is under increasing strain as the point man for his Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People's Justice Party as he continues to be harried politically as well.
"Some analysts would point out that Anwar has to get PKR's house in order," a think-tank analyst in Kuala Lumpur told Asia Sentinel. "There is growing frustration within Anwar's coalition and his own party." In particular, PKR has lost five members of parliament and five statehouse members to defections in the two years since the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition stunned the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition by breaking its two-thirds hold on parliament. By contrast, Parti Islam se-Malaysia and the Democratic Action Party have only lost one each.
With a number of PKR state assemblymen now wavering and clearly considering defecting, it is possible that the opposition coalition could lose the states of Selangor and Kedah, which they won in the 2008 election. The state of Perak has already been reclaimed by the Barisan although critics say it was through skullduggery rather than legitimate political action.
"Because it is Anwar's party, Keadilan was supposed to be the anchor, but it has been weak from the very start," said a source in Kuala Lumpur. Parti Keadilan is largely made up of young, urban professional ethnic Malays.
"The problem is that Keadilan, like Anwar himself, are mostly ex-members of (the United Malays National Organization) and a lot of them are in there for a quick buck – like Umno itself, I guess. Anwar is bogged down with his legal sodomy case-but more importantly, there is a loss of confidence in his leadership."
What should have given a wakeup call to both Anwar and his colleagues in the opposition Democratic Action Party, which is largely ethnic Chinese, was an announcement earlier this week that Parti Islam se-Malaysia the fundamentalist Islamic party with its roots in the rural northeast, will take in non-Muslim members and even allow them to stand as PAS electoral candidates.
As Asia Sentinel first reported last November, it is PAS that is capitalizing on the situation, rather than the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition. Despite defections, the opposition coalition has won eight of 11 by-elections since the March 2008 general election. The latest was in Sarawak on May 16 when, despite three visits by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and a cornucopia of educational goodies, voters again turned away from the Barisan, an indication that the Barisan and particularly UMNO continues to suffer from perceptions of corruption and political favoritism to cronies.
PAS's latest move, announced last week, was to allow members of its Supporters Club to become full members of the Islamic party, with the right to attend annual meetings as delegates. The Supporters Club has some 20,000 members, almost all of them Chinese, who have turned away from the Barisan Nasional. According to the think tank source in Kuala Lumpur, PAS may have more Chinese voters than the DAP
The Chinese, says the source, -- an ethnic Chinese as well -- are comfortable with PAS despite the Islamic party's emphasis on fundamentalist Islam because, unlike the Barisan and particularly UMNO, PAS has no designs on the Chinese business community's ownership of the economic sinews of the country. The country's New Economic Policy, in place for four decades, has been designed to transfer as much as 30 percent of the economic activity of the country to ethnic Malays.
"The proof is that we recognize supporters as our official party wing," PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang told his party's newspaper Harakah Daily. The Islamic party has already placed a non-Muslim in a Terengganu constituency to contest as a PAS candidate.
"Whether this is for real or a political gambit, it is hard to say," the analyst said. "But it does suggest PAS is going after the Chinese vote."
That isn't to say there won't be tension. There are plenty of Islamic firebrands in PAS who detest Chinese dietary freedom – to eat pork and drink beer, for instance -- and lack of discretion in dress for women. There have been attempts by PAS to limit beer sales in some communities. Nonetheless, the source said, PAS may have even wider resonance among voters than the Chinese-oriented Democratic Action Party, another leg of the opposition coalition.
In the meantime, Anwar and Parti Keadilan have come under constant criticism for the quality of the candidates they have fielded and for disorganization and political infighting in the party itself. Abdul Hadi Awang and DAP national chairman Karpal Singh, among others, have urged Anwar to look into the weaknesses in his party that have caused the defections. Anwar has repeatedly spoken of the need to find better candidates.
Anwar has been under a cloud since June of 2008, when a then-24-year-old former aide, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, filed charges accusing the 62-year-old opposition leader of forcible sodomy. Sodomy in Malaysia is punishable by caning and up to 20 years in prison. The charges have since been reduced from forcible rape to consensual sex, which is still illegal under Malaysian law. The trial has droned on in a Kuala Lumpur courtroom for months, with Anwar's lawyers seeking delay after delay that has frustrated his followers, a growing number of whom say the trial so far appears to have been conducted on its merits rather than the previous sodomy charges brought against him in 1998 that put him behind bars for six years.