Malaysia's Lawmakers on the run

Faced with the possibility of an incipient revolt that could end his political career, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is putting at least 41 of his backbench parliament members on a plane for Taipei, and, he hopes, out of temptation's way.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was returned to parliament in a by-election on August 26, has vowed to overturn the Barisan Nasional government by September 16 by luring coalition lawmakers to his side. Currently the opposition coalition, known as Pakatan Rakyat, has 81 lawmakers to the Barisan's 140, meaning Anwar would have to lure some 30 to cross the parliamentary aisle.

With seven days to go before Anwar mounts his challenge, however, starting Monday, members of the Barisan Nasional Backbenchers Club left for a hurriedly organized program to explore Taiwan's agricultural and industrial technology. The two groups that left Monday were headed by Tiong King Sing, the chairman of the backbenchers club. Eight more are expected to go on Tuesday, Mokhtar Radin, the deputy backbench chairman told reporters Monday.

Some MPs, Radin said, had decided to join at the last minute, and thus the total was not confirmed. By noon, 29 MPs had turned up at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport for the flight.

It had nothing to do with Anwar, Tiong King Sing told reporters, saying that "Initially, we wanted to go to China but as we did not have enough time to process our visas, we decided on Taiwan instead."

The tactic is reminiscent of a famous walkout by Democratic lawmakers in the US state of Texas in 2003 when the governor attempted to call the Texas legislature into session to address a redistricting measure that would have eliminated a flock of Democratic state legislative seats. The Democrats fled to hotels in the neighboring states of Oklahoma and New Mexico in a vain attempt to evade the special session, although they were eventually called back. The Republican plan finally passed in a special session in October of that year.

It appears the Barisan is playing for time while clinging to power.The opposition coalition is composed of three strikingly dissimilar parties – one Chinese socialist, one Islamic fundamentalist and one composed of middle-class Malays with little appetite for rigorous Islamic rules – that came together for March 8 national elections as a coalition of convenience as much as anything to attempt to sink the Barisan, which had ruled Malaysia for 50 years. Anwar himself is thus widely considered to be in a race with 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. He also faces the possibility that he could be re-arrested this week on charges of refusing to give DNA in a consensual sodomy case brought by a 23-year-old former aide. Anwar has refused to provide DNA, charging that the results could be manipulated.

The vehicle to force Anwar to provide a fresh sample was rushed through Parliament at the end of August. It was tabled for second reading in Parliament on the day Anwar won his 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 allows 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 said he has an unshakeable alibi for the time the offense allegedly took place. The physician who examined the complainant 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

But Badawi also faces growing opposition in his own party and within the coalition. Koh Tsu Koon, the acting president of Gerakan, a primarily Chinese party that is the fourth largest party in the Barisan, told reporters the party is assessing whether it can still play what he called "meaningful role" in the Barisan Nasional. The party was nearly destroyed in the March 8 elections, losing eight of its 10 parliamentary seats and relinquishing control of Penang, one of the most important state constituencies, to the Democratic Action Party.

Koh said Gerakan, which has been smarting for years from what it conceives as neglect within the coalition, doesn't view its membership as unconditional. Tan Kee Kwong, the former Gerakan KL state chairman and a former member of parliament for Segambut, has already bailed out, joining Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

"It's not as if it is to slap our Barisan partners in the face. No, we are not irresponsible," Koh told a press conference over the weekend. Asked by reporters if that meant Gerakan might leave the coalition, he replied: "I don't know what else I can say. You want to write it like that, you go ahead."

The March 8 election, which cost the Barisan its two-thirds majority, has generated growing attempts within Badawi's own United Malays National Organisation, the leading ethnic party in the coalition, to get the prime minister to step down. Intra-party elections are going on now within UMNO, the leading ethnic party in the coalition. Over the weekend, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad agreed to join his own mortal enemy, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, in an attempt to oust Badawi. Mahathir left the party earlier this year after it appeared the government would investigate him on charges of fixing judicial appointments during his long career. Razaleigh ran against Mahathir repeatedly in an attempt to take over the party, announced after the March election that he would challenge Badawi as UMNO head. The alliance between the two further threatens the position of Najib Tun Razak, the deputy prime minister, whom Mahathir has publicly demanded be ousted.

In addition, after Khairy Jamaluddin, Badawi's son-in-law, who has faced considerable antagonism in the party, is expected to announce soon that he would seek to become the chief of the UMNO Youth wing of the party, Mahathir's son Mukhriz announced he would also go for the job of youth chief, viewed as a stepping-stone to the eventual leadership of the party and, until now, the country.

At least three by-elections may be looming as well as challengers attempt to overturn election results in which Barisan members won.