The Anwar saga: Fear-driven politics?

Even as Anwar Ibrahim ensures himself a seat in parliament Tuesday and comes closer to realizing his ambition to become prime minister, no one is sure whether he will be allowed to in view of the controversy raging through the country over fresh sodomy charges.

Malaysian politics is getting murkier with every passing day and its characteristic intrigues and scandals are repeating once again. Meanwhile the country faces high inflation from soaring oil prices, causing misery to the people and bringing uncertainty to its economy with a possible fall in investor confidence.

It’s deja vu, recalling a similar drama in 1998 when the political battle was fought not on principles but on cliques, conspiracies and sleazy scandals. One decade later it is playing out exactly the same with more or less the same cast of characters. The only difference is, while in 1998 Prime Minister Mahatir initiated and led the assault against Anwar, this time we do not know who is behind the current drama and what role Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is likely to play.

Anwar was charged with sodomy a decade ago, spent a number of years in jail and saw his political career ruined. He is once again in the center of the drama, being charged with sodomy with one of his aides, arrested for a day and then freed on bail. The sword of Damocles still hangs over him. Unlike his sacking and arrest in 1998, which drew tens of thousands onto the streets, there was scant show of public support for Anwar this time around.

Anwar’s impatience to be prime minister will probably cost him dearly again as it did in 1998 when he challenged his boss Mahatir. Possibly goaded by his supporters and spin doctors, Anwar is committing the same 1998 mistake by pushing the incumbent prime minister and his team to the wall. We can’t but expect them to push back a la Mahatir.

Anwar was the darling of Mahatir who helped him to supersede many other claimants to the position he reached. Given a little patience, he probably would have succeeded his mentor in a few years time as Mahatir was naturally advancing in age.

Like Mahatir in 1998, Badawi now faces the greatest challenge to his leadership and is already under intense pressure to resign because of poor election results and high fuel prices. While the main assault against Badawi was started by Mahatir himself — long unhappy with the way Badawi had been sidelining Mahatir’s camp — skepticism within the UMNO about Badawi’s ability to lead the nation was also growing rapidly.

Emboldened by the spectacular success of his People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the Barisan Alternatif (”alternative front”), which he helped to forge to fight the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, Anwar might have thought the declining legitimacy of the government and the prime minister presented an opportune moment to mount a challenge.

He was inspired by some defections in the last few months from the government party to the opposition and was confident enough to declare with great fanfare he would dislodge the government from power and replace it with his own by mid-September this year.

But Anwar forgot his past, from which he had never been fully cleared, which his detractors could use against him at any time. More importantly, despite his spectacular success in the March elections, he has yet to remove past stigmas from being too close to the Muslim agenda of the Malaysian state and from never articulating a vision for justice for all Malaysians irrespective of race.

He did begin in earnest in recent months to give the right signal by defending interests of minorities and a secular state, but he needed more time to establish trust with each and every sector of Malaysian citizens and the credibility required to emerge as undisputed leader to challenge a government in power.

Not surprisingly, the sodomy allegations came only weeks after Anwar said he was in a position to launch a challenge to the ruling coalition with the help of government defectors. This was a sure provocation for a government under siege and thus ready to use anything in its arsenal to hit back at Anwar.

Knowing full well Anwar’s vulnerability, his detractors calculated such an allegation would not only distract the opposition from its goal of bringing down the current government and confuse the general public about the truth behind the allegations but would also throw the opposition into chaos by removing its most charismatic leader from the political arena.

Even though the government is in disarray, it still holds sway over the police, many media organs and many financial stakeholders.

The trends in Malaysian politics since the March elections were moving fully in his favor. Anwar’s opposition alliance made stunning gains in those elections, winning a third of the parliamentary seats and gaining control in five states. These results have redrawn Malaysia’s political landscape.

With a little patience, hard work at the grassroots level and trust building by articulating a vision of justice for all in the coming years, Anwar could appeal to Malay voters to change the rules of the game in Malaysian politics and finally emerge as a renascent and true reformer. But we are unsure today which way the drama will unfold.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy 9Research, New Delhi. He once lived in Malaysia.

Baladas Ghoshal

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