Malaysia's Anwar Moves Closer to the Endgame

Malaysia's 50-year-old political infrastructure is in danger of coming completely apart, with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim amping up the pressure to replace Prime Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi unless the government goes after him with the draconian Internal Security Act, which provides for indefinite detention without trial.

Anwar, who leads the Pakatan Rakyat, or People's Alliance, demanded Thursday that Prime Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi convene by Tuesday an emergency session of parliament, which is now in recess for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, to allow a no-confidence vote against the premier.

Abdullah Badawi was weakened further Thursday when the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), which has two lawmakers in parliament, said it would quit the Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition. SAPP president Yong Teck Lee said the party would become independent instead of joining the opposition, but attacked the government, saying that "the Barisan Nasional has lost its moral authority to rule." Yong is said to be close to Anwar ever since the latter enticed him to switch sides in Sabah state elections in 1994. The party has split with two federal lawmakers and two state legislators sticking to Yong, and another two state legislators moving to a splinter party. Yong’s Deputy disagreed with SAPP's move and resigned from SAPP

The Barisan itself has been on a downward spiral since March 8, when it lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time since Malaysia became an independent country 50 years ago. Abdullah Badawi has largely been made the scapegoat, partly because he is perceived as weak leader, partly because of implacable attacks by the former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and partly because of deteriorating economic fundamentals as the global economy goes into decline.

With Anwar breathing down their necks, senior leaders, including cabinet ministers, of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the largest ethnic party that helms the Barisan Nasional, held a meeting of the Supreme Council at the party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur last night to openly call for Badawi's resignation as party president and the country's prime minister. Such a move is rare among the usually-complaisant politicians. But the editor of a popular Malay-language weekly says UMNO may be united in "hatred" for Anwar.

Within UMNO itself, said a Kuala Lumpur political observer with ties to the party, the concern about Anwar taking over could trigger the use of the ISA against him. Abdullah Badawi threatened to use the law against Anwar on Tuesday. There is considerable concern among UmNO stalwarts that if Anwar takes over, he will seek to prosecute some top officials for corruption, along with law enforcement officials who engineered his imprisonment in 1999 on sexual deviation and corruption charges.

Apprehension about Anwar could also cause UMNO's leaders to hold their noses and select Najib Tun Razak, the scandal-scarred deputy prime minister, to replace him although Najib is saddled by numerous allegations of corruption as well as complicity in the October 2006 death of a 28-year-old Mongolian translator who is widely believed to have been his lover before he handed her on to his best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda.

Badawi tried to neutralize his possible forcible ejection from the leadership by swapping portfolios with Najib on Wednesday. Najib is the now finance minister while Badawi is also defense minister, a position held by Najib for 14 years. Badawi told a press conference Wednesday that he could leave earlier than 2010 under his announced plan to hand the premiership to Najib.

"I will decide when I want to go. I will not be staying more than 2010," he told reporters. "If I should want to go earlier, that is flexible. That is the flexibility we have arranged. It depends on the progress of the role I am giving to Najib. Let's see what he can do."

Mahathir, who has carried on a three-year vendetta to rid the leadership of Abdullah Badawi, has issued an ultimatum to Najib to take over or be taken out along with the prime minister. If Najib takes over, however, that will be handing the leadership of UMNO back to the same people who raised popular disgust over corruption and nepotism in the party and contributed to the Barisan's relative drubbing at the polls.

In addition to the possibility of being jailed under the ISA, Anwar also faces charges that he sodomized a 23-year-old aide, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan. Despite the fact that the doctor who examined Saiful found no evidence of sodomy, the government appears to be going ahead with plans to charge Anwar via a bill rushed through parliament to compel the opposition leader to give a fresh DNA sample.

Anwar was a rising star in UMNO until Mahathir sacked him as deputy prime minister and finance minister purportedly over policy disputes to contain the financial crisis in 1997/98. He was then convicted and jailed for sodomy and abuse of power. However, the sodomy conviction was overturned and he was released in 2004 after serving his sentence for abuse of power. Anwar and his supporters have always claimed that the charges in 1998 were trumped-up

Anwar originally said he would overthrow the government on September 16. When that didn't happen, the non-event was derided by members of the Barisan Nasional, with the loudest voices coming from within UMNO. Anwar initially set Sept 16, the day that Malaysia was formed when Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo merged with Malaya in the peninsula, as the date that he will take over federal government, The criticisms ranged from calling Anwar an outright liar to mobile text messages joking that Anwar really meant "chairs" -- kerusi in Malay also means "seat" -- from Ikea and that the "chairs" will be delivered once parliament reconvenes.