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.

Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters
Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim listens during a meeting at his office in Kuala Lumpur March 11.

Two years after its strongest-ever electoral showing, Malaysia's opposition is beset by infighting, and the ongoing trial of its leader, former Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Over the past month, four lawmakers have left the opposition, shaving its bloc in the 222-seat parliament and raising doubts over its cohesiveness. Analysts say further defections are possible, as the ruling coalition seeks to regain its two-thirds majority in parliament, the minimum threshold for changing the Constitution.

Mr. Anwar, who is accused of sodomizing a young aide, a charge he denies, heads an unlikely coalition of ideological, racial, and social opposites. His popularity and charisma are widely seen as the glue that holds it together, and a criminal conviction would be a major blow.

The trial, a virtual rerun of a controversial sodomy case in 1998 that led to a six-year imprisonment, is due to resume on March 25. If found guilty, Anwar could face another prison sentence and would be unable to lead the opposition and his People’s Justice Party, known as Keadilian.

Keadilian members say that Anwar hasn’t anointed a successor to run it in his absence, as his wife, a former lawmaker, did during his last jail term. A party executive, who requested anonymity, says Anwar refuses even to discuss the issue properly and is distracted by the trial.

Cracks in the opposition

A conviction runs the risk of inflaming Malaysian politics. In 1998, tens of thousands took to the street over the trial, which was widely seen as orchestrated by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to see off a challenge from Anwar, his handpicked deputy. So far, only small crowds have protested the latest trial, which Anwar calls a political conspiracy.

Tian Chua, a lawmaker and spokesman for Keadilian, says the party is ready and would survive a guilty verdict. “Keadilian’s strength isn’t its leadership. It’s a people’s movement,” he says.

But the party has been badly stung by defections and by claims that Anwar’s erratic leadership was to blame. Last year, the opposition lost control of Perak, one of five states it won in March 2008, after similar crossovers by Keadilian assemblymen that infuriated the two other parties in the coalition.

Mr. Chua admits that the party has had trouble disciplining its ranks and needs to better scrutinize its candidates. “In an election, it’s quite easy to bring everyone together with a manifesto. But when you come into power the issue of implementation becomes key,” he says.

Ruling coalition gearing up

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.

“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.”

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