Malaysia’s parliament voted Thursday for a six-month suspension of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and three other lawmakers after Mr. Anwar accused the government of naming a national ethnic unity campaign after a defunct Israeli political alliance. Israel is deeply unpopular in majority-Muslim Malaysia.
The suspension of Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who is currently on trial for alleged sodomy, is fuelling speculation that Prime Minister Najib Razak is gearing up for elections next year. Recent by-elections suggest that the government has won back support in areas where the opposition made gains in the last election.
Legislators suspended Anwar for saying in March "1Malaysia," a government campaign to promote unity among Malaysia’s ethnic groups, was named after "One Israel," a political alliance led by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak that collapsed in 2001. Malaysian officials denied that the idea was copied from Israel, which has no diplomatic relations with Malaysia.
Anwar has emerged as a serious challenger to the National Front (Barisan Nasional) coalition which has governed Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957. But he faces a lengthy jail sentence if he’s convicted on the sodomy charge, a virtual rerun of a highly controversial sodomy trial in 1998 that sent him to jail for six years.
Thursday’s suspension doesn’t stop Anwar from appearing in public or at party functions, but may curb the opposition’s clout in parliamentary debates. The three other suspended lawmakers are allies in his People’s Justice Party, including his lead attorney in the sodomy trial.
“It’s a gag motion to stop the voice of the opposition. It’s a warning to anyone who’s outspoken that they could also be out,” says Tian Chua, an opposition lawmaker and party spokesman.
The parliamentary session was dogged by controversy as opposition lawmakers held up placards that read "Rubber Stamp Parliament" and "Kangaroo Court." The opposition coalition then staged a walkout before the votes were cast. Mr. Chua later said Anwar wasn’t given a chance to clarify his statements and said the speaker of the parliament appeared to ignore the protocol for suspensions.
But Khairy Jamaluddin, an executive in the United Malay National Organization (Umno), the largest party in the governing coalition, said Anwar had been stalling for months on the 1Malaysia allegations and had waived his chance of a hearing. He later tweeted that “Anwar is so full of himself, he wants to be above Parliamentary rules. Different set of laws for him.”
Malaysian news reports suggested that the suspensions would give the ruling coalition a two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time since a 2008 election setback. This is the threshold for passing constitutional amendments and electoral boundary redistricting. But Chua said that the government still didn’t have sufficient numbers to force through such changes.
Anwar’s party has been weakened in recent months by internal wrangling over executive positions. Last month, a key deputy quit the party in protest at alleged vote buying in leadership elections. Critics say Anwar’s leadership has waned as has been distracted by his protracted sodomy trial. He has denied the charges and accused Mr. Razak of conspiring with his accuser, a male aide.