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Malaysia opposition embattled by leader Anwar Ibrahim's sodomy trial

Malaysia's opposition coalition is struggling to stay united as their popular leader Anwar Ibrahim focuses on his sodomy trial. Already four lawmakers have defected.

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Some attribute the opposition’s setbacks to the hardball tactics of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has dominated Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957. One of the deserting lawmakers reportedly faced the threat of a probe from an anticorruption agency that has been accused of pro-UMNO partisanship.

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“They want to weaken the [opposition] party, bit by bit,” says James Chin, a political scientist at Monash University’s campus in Kuala Lumpur.
Khairy Jamaluddin, an UMNO executive and lawmaker, denies that the party is behind the defections and says that the opposition suffers from its own internal problems. But he adds that the onus is still on UMNO to win back disaffected voters after a “wake-up call” in 2008.

“The opposition’s weakness is not necessarily our strength,” he says.

Observers say the ruling party has regained some of its footing since Prime Minister Najib Razak took office last April, replacing the unpopular Abdullah Badawi. Mr. Najib has vowed to overhaul the economy and attract more foreign investment, which is emerging from recession. That message appeals to ethnic minorities who abandoned UMNO and its partners in 2008, says Mr. Chin, an ethnic Chinese.

But turning around the party won’t be easy, warns Tengku Razaleigh, a senior UMNO lawmaker who is deeply critical of its patronage system. “They haven’t learned.

That’s why they’re going about business as usual…. Life is too comfortable for them to change,” he says.

Still, the pressure is starting to show on the opposition, which has struggled to raise funds while refusing to hand out no-bid contracts to party insiders, as UMNO is known to do. Anwar has campaigned on an anticorruption platform, seeking to capitalize on public anger over the issue, but some donors have complained of meager returns, says Chua.

The opposition also lacks a common policy platform that satisfies the three parties, which include a conservative Islamic party and a Chinese-oriented party. But observers say the same goes for the UMNO-led ruling coalition, which relies on support from the mostly Christian states of Sabah and Sarawak to fend off the opposition’s challenge.

“They’re still more united by what they’re against than what they’re for,” a Western diplomat says of the opposition. “But they’re still united.”