Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said his People’s Alliance coalition has a contingency plan in place in the event he is found guilty of sodomy charges and imprisoned ahead of elections that may come this year.
“We have prepared the groundwork for a manifesto for Pakatan Rakyat and we are now in the final stages,” Anwar, 64, said in an interview today, using the Malay name for the opposition coalition. We have decided “on the leadership during elections or post-elections in the event I’m imprisoned.”
The country’s High Court is scheduled to announce the verdict on Jan. 9, with Anwar facing as many as 20 years in prison if convicted of sodomizing a former aide. Prime Minister Najib Razak said Dec. 3 that preparations had begun for elections that he must call by June 2013.
An Anwar conviction may deprive the ideologically disparate opposition of a unifying figure. The coalition is aiming to build on advances it made in 2008 elections when it held the ruling group to its narrowest victory since independence in 1957.
“There may be an immediate swing towards him and his party” if Anwar is convicted, said Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at Kuala Lumpur-based Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. “If Najib takes some months before calling an election, this opens up room for weaknesses in the opposition coalition to surface and any differences in opinion to be exploited.”
The People’s Alliance led by Anwar is comprised of his People’s Justice Party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the Democratic Action Party. Some Pan-Malaysian members espouse the implementation of Islamic law, while the Democratic Action Party’s secretary-general is Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, Malaysia’s only ethnic-Chinese state leader.
“Frankly, I don’t foresee this problem,” Anwar said of a potential leadership vacuum, speaking from his office in the headquarters of the People’s Justice Party in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur. “We have anticipated this for the last three years.”
While Anwar declined to detail any plan, he said he would continue to play a role in Malaysian politics if he ends up behind bars.
“I’ll still be around, in jail or outside jail,” he said.
The trial began in February 2010 and stemmed from a police report filed by Anwar’s former aide in 2008 detailing a sexual encounter in a Kuala Lumpur apartment. In Malaysia the act of sodomy, defined as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” is illegal even between consenting adult men.
Anwar faced similar allegations in 1998 as deputy prime minister. He was sentenced to nine years in jail for sodomy and a separate corruption charge, before being released in 2004 after Malaysia’s highest court overturned the sodomy conviction.
Organizers of a rally planned for Malaysia’s capital on Jan. 9 in support of Anwar should meet with police, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said today, responding to reports that supporters were planning to gather outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court as the verdict is delivered.
During today’s interview Anwar shifted uncomfortably in his chair, the result of a back injury sustained while he was imprisoned and that he takes pain medication for, he said.
Anwar didn’t run in March 2008 general elections because a corruption conviction barred him from holding office until April of that year. He still led the opposition coalition to win control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states and denied the ruling National Front coalition a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time since 1969.
Anwar returned to Parliament in August 2008 after winning back a seat in the Permatang Pauh constituency in the northern state of Penang. His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, vacated the seat so he could compete.
The Federal Constitution stipulates that a member of either house of parliament will be disqualified if they have been convicted by a court and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of “not less than one year or to a fine of not less than two thousand ringgit and has not received a free pardon.”
While Najib hasn’t said when he’ll call elections, his budget announcement in October stoked speculation of an early vote. The plan provides cash to low-income families, raises civil servants’ pay and boosts spending on railways to spur growth. Najib, 58, has rolled back decades-old protectionist policies, opened up service industries to foreign investors and eased rules on ethnic-Malay ownership in companies.