Malaysia’s disparate, multi-ethnic opposition coalition faces a fresh challenge to its cohesion with leader Anwar Ibrahim found guilty of sodomy and at risk of being sent to jail for five years.
The former deputy prime minister, 66, had planned to stand as the People’s Justice Party candidate for a vacant parliamentary seat in opposition-controlled Selangor state, until the Court of Appeal on March 7 overturned his 2012 acquittal on a sodomy charge. His wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail nominated today for the special election, to be held March 23, and will face Chew Mei Fun from the ruling coalition’s Malaysian Chinese Association party, the Election Commission said.
Winning back his parliamentary seat in 2008 after his release from prison in 2004 when an earlier sodomy conviction was overturned, Anwar leads an ideologically varied coalition known as the People’s Alliance, or Pakatan Rakyat. The group’s biggest shared goal has been to unseat a government in office since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, even as members disagree among themselves on everything from its agenda to the implementation of Islamic law in the Muslim majority nation.
“The opposition has always been held together by Anwar’s personal charisma all these years, and a sense of shared mission,” said Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst based near Kuala Lumpur at the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. “It definitely will set the opposition back to some extent.”
The Anwar legal dispute has been overshadowed by news of a Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane that has been missing since March 8 with 239 people on board. Investigators from at least nine countries are searching for the wreckage of the jet, which lost contact with no distress calls, emergency-beacon signals, bad weather or other signs as to why a cruising airliner would lose touch in one of the safest phases of flight.
Anwar’s own party and another made up mainly of ethnic Malays fared worse in a general election in 2013 than the previous ballot in 2008 while his ally, the mostly ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party, improved its fortunes. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition won a parliamentary majority, its 13th straight election victory, even though it secured 47 percent of the popular vote.
There were already tensions in Anwar’s coalition before his conviction last week. Had he secured the seat in Selangor in the special election, it would have opened the way for him to subsequently seek the post of chief minister in the state, which surrounds the capital Kuala Lumpur and in 2012 was the biggest contributor to the country’s gross domestic product.
The current chief minister Khalid Ibrahim, who represents Anwar’s alliance, has signaled he would not make way for the opposition leader. Khalid’s restructuring of water assets in Selangor in agreement with Najib’s government and without the coalition’s prior consent has sparked infighting. Karpal Singh, chairman of the Democratic Action Party, will be sentenced today for sedition.
“This is a critical moment for the opposition,” said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at the Singapore Management University. “They must be able to put aside their differences, and they need to focus on the key issues that ordinary citizens want. They need to put away their personality conflicts.”
The decision to have Anwar contest reflected the party’s efforts to speed reform in the state and fend off political attacks by the United Malays National Organisation, the country’s biggest party, Rafizi Ramli, strategic director of the People’s Justice Party, said in a statement released Jan. 29. The opposition has pledged to end Malaysia’s system of preferences in employment and education for ethnic Malays and to reduce corruption.
Ethnic Malays make up about half of the population, while Chinese account for roughly a quarter and the rest are mostly ethnic Indians or indigenous groups. After 1969 race riots Najib’s father Abdul Razak Hussein, then the prime minister, implemented a system of racial preferences for Malays that largely remains in place.
Anwar yesterday appealed the verdict and sentencing of five years in jail, and is currently free on bail. In 2012 he was acquitted of sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia and carries a maximum sentence of as many as 20 years in prison.
The deputy of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in the late 1990s during the Asian financial crisis, Anwar was fired in 1998 as Mahathir opposed his economic prescriptions. Within a month he was arrested and spent the next six years in prison on convictions for abuse of power and sodomy, being released in 2004 after Mahathir retired and a judge overturned the guilty verdict for having sex with a man.
Former U.S. vice president Al Gore called the Anwar verdict “extremely disturbing” in a post yesterday on his official blog.
“The importance of the rule of law should be deemed important for the reputation of Malaysia as a nation within the community of nations,” he said. “The eyes of the world are focused on what will come next.”
Given Anwar’s prior comebacks it is too soon to count him out, said James Chin, professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University.
“Anwar has more lives than a cat when it comes to politics,” Chin said.