MALAYSIA: Anwar’s Win Spells Leadership Change

Analysis by Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 27 (IPS) – Despite a nasty campaign against him, opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim has won spectacularly in a landmark by-election in the family stronghold of Permatang Pauh, confirming his stature as possible prime minister with truly national appeal, cutting across race and religion.

Tuesday’s victory by a 15,500-vote majority signals that Anwar has re-arrived politically after suffering a severe setback in 1998, following charges of sodomy that saw him jailed for six years. His opponent Arif Shah Omar Shah managed just 15,524 votes or about half as many votes as polled in favour of Anwar.

The return to parliament of the man who once was deputy prime minister has shaken the political establishment and brought him one step closer to the stated goal of seizing the top job.

‘’The next step is Putra Jaya,” Anwar told thousands of cheering supporters outside the counting centre in Bukit Mertajam, a suburb of the Permatang Pauh constituency, referring to the administrative capital that houses the office of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

‘’We won and our victory is decisive and overwhelming,” he said. ‘’This is a victory for the people. And it’s great to be back,” Anwar said. He described the occasion as a ‘’defining moment for the new Malaysia minus race, fear and discrimination.” ¥

Anwar, whose opposition People’s Alliance coalition controls 82 seats in the 222-seat parliament, has vowed to topple the government by inducing defections from among ruling party lawmakers, before Malaysia Day on Sep. 16.

‘’The victory signals that Malaysians irrespective of race or religion have rejected the ruling coalition (the Barisan Nasional that is led by the United Malay National Organisation or UMNO). They want change and they believe only Anwar can make the change that the country urgently needs,” said Bridget Welsh, an academic from the United States who teaches South-east Asian politics at John Hopkins University.

‘’It is a rejection of 50 years of autocratic and arrogant rule by the authorities,” she told IPS. ‘’People want change and they want it now.”

The by-election was created after Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, vacated the constituency to pave the way for him to enter parliament and take charge of the three-party alliance.

Despite a ten-day campaign from Aug. 16 that saw the ruling party using sleaze and race to convince voters, especially majority Muslim-Malays, that Anwar was morally unfit to hold public office, he sailed through. Worst of all, money and government machinery were used to try and convince the 58,000 voters in the constituency that Anwar had sodomised an aide.

Anwar has been formally charged with the crime, punishable with up to 20 years’ imprisonment, in a replay of the 1998 sodomy charge that resulted in him being sent to prison and nearly ended his political career.

His alleged victim, former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan, 23, stunned the nation on the eve of nomination by swearing on the Quran in a mosque that Anwar had sodomised him.

Unfortunately for the ruling coalition, one of the imams of the mosque, Ramlang Porigi, turned up at Permatang Pauh to publicly defend Anwar, saying that the oath-taking by Azlan was a sham and stage-managed.

Even before Imam Porigi’s dramatic appearance, a survey conducted by well-known pollster Merdeka Centre showed that 59 percent of Muslim-Malays were convinced that the sodomy charges against Anwar were trumped up ones and politically motivated.

What may have been truly damaging for Anwar was the argument that his victory would be detrimental to the interests of the majority Muslim-Malays who are beneficiaries of positive discrimination policies that give them advantages over Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indians, mostly descendants of immigrants brought in during British colonial rule.

The voters, apparently, were in no mood to buy.

Despite government attempts to dampen the victory spirit there is clear jubilation across the country over Anwar’s spectacular win.

But there are many hurdles ahead for Anwar, starting with the sodomy trial which opens on Sep. 10. If convicted, Anwar could lose the seat as happened after he was convicted over earlier charges ten years ago. The charges were overturned in 2004.

The government told parliament, earlier this month, that the prosecutors have a strong case this time, but promised that Anwar would get a fair trial. Sex between males is illegal in Malaysia.

Anwar, who says he was framed, said with corruption widespread within the establishment, a fair trial was impossible. ‘’The political heat would cool off during Ramadan next month but expect big surprises after that,” Welsh said.

One immediate consequence of the defeat for the government is mounting calls for Badawi, who has promised earlier to demit office by June 2010, to quit immediately.

Badawi’s rudderless leadership of the UMNO party and the government is being blamed for the defeat. UMNO members that for personal and other reasons Abdullah is unable to stop Anwar.

Ever since the disastrous showing in the Mar. 8 general election in which the opposition won five state governments and 82 seats in parliament, Badawi has been under pressure to step down.

Leading the demand for Badawi to resign is veteran UMNO leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah who has called for a ”new leadership to unite our people and forge a clear national direction.”

”He (Badawi) does not have the minimal credibility needed to run the country day by day, let alone to take it in the new directions we need to go in a complex world,” he said in a statement.

Razaleigh described the current political situation as ”dangerous” and one which cannot continue without consequences for the ruling coalition. ”Our leadership is rejected by the people,” he said, echoing the general view of many Malaysians following the dramatic reversals wrought by the March general election.

”The by-election results confirm the trend. Either we change or we will be become history,” he said.

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