THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA
February 19, 2008
Abdullah v. Anwar
By Rose Ismail
KUALA LUMPUR -- In the midst of preparations for national polls on
March 8, a curious ailment has struck Malaysia's top politician:
"I don't remember Anwar Ibrahim," said Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad
Badawi last Thursday, responding to press questions about the former
deputy prime minister, also the country's most prominent opposition
leader. When asked whether the polling date was set to keep Mr. Anwar
out of the elections, the prime minister said: "We forgot about him."
The prime minister's dismissive statements about one of his chief
political foes may possibly be a reflection of uncertainty over Mr.
Anwar's involvement in the election felt by the United Malays National
Organization (UMNO), the Malay-based party which leads the ruling
Barisan Nasional coalition. It can't be a coincidence that the polling
day has been fixed a month before Mr. Anwar is eligible to run for
political office. (Mr. Anwar was convicted and sentenced for
corruption and sodomy in 1999 and 2000, and released in 2004.
Malaysian law prevents those convicted of crimes from standing for
elections for four years.)
Despite his current ineligibility for public office, Mr. Anwar wields
considerable influence as an adviser to Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), a
marginal multiracial party which boasts only one parliamentary seat,
held by his wife. In recent months, he has forcefully re-entered
public life here, commenting on just about every issue, from poverty
to the price of essential goods. The media blitz is an indication of
his resolve to lead the nation, a goal he nearly reached when serving
as Malaysia's second most powerful politician in former Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad's government.
This strategy doesn't come without risks, however. In September last
year -- to great fanfare -- Mr. Anwar produced a 2002 video allegedly
showing a well-connected lawyer discussing the appointment of judges
with a senior member of the judiciary. Mr. Anwar probably meant to
discredit the previous regime's oversight of the judiciary. Instead,
the tape reminded Malaysians of the critical role he played in Mr.
Mahathir's government, for surely he would have known the machinations
in the judiciary while he was deputy prime minister.
Mr. Anwar may also not have the public confidence he once enjoyed. The
years in jail have kept him out of the public eye, allowing other
political figures to step in, such as the politically agile and
eloquent Khairy Jamaluddin, Mr. Abdullah's son-in-law. In fact, the
March polls may turn out to be Mr. Anwar's most difficult test yet --
or even mark the beginning of his end in national politics.
Outside Malaysia, Mr. Anwar may look like he presents a viable
alternative to a coalition that has been in power for five decades.
Inside Malaysia, his political ambitions are bound inextricably to the
PKR's upcoming electoral performance. If the party's past performance
is any measure, that's not a sure bet. The rumor that the party
intends to contest up to 100 parliamentary seats, out of 219, is
already being viewed as a sign of desperation rather than confidence.
Mr. Anwar has also optimistically declared that an opposition member
of parliament will vacate his or her seat for him come March, thus
triggering a sure victory in a by-election after the polls. While he
doubtless intends to publicize his party's unstinting loyalty, many
view this claim as a last-ditch attempt to remain in the political
game once his ban from politics is lifted.
All this seems to indicate that Mr. Abdullah's selective amnesia may
be justified. Malaysia's political opposition is in practice a loose
grouping of parties, including the Chinese-based Democratic Action
Party, the pro-Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia and the PKR. While
these parties are openly cooperating to deny the ruling coalition its
two-thirds parliamentary majority, their divergent and often
diametrically opposed ideologies have always weakened rather than
strengthened the opposition alliance.
* * *
Mr. Abdullah's biggest challenge may present itself after the
election, when the new government must begin translating its campaign
promises into action. In his first term, Mr. Abdullah was given wide
leeway from a public exhausted by a demanding and fast-paced 22 years
under Mr. Mahathir. People were also charmed by Mr. Abdullah's voluble
promises of clean governance.
The prime minister's efforts have, on occasion, produced dichotomous
results. In the early days of his administration, Mr. Abdullah seemed
open to public debate on delicate matters such as ethnicity and
religion as well as the social contract established at independence 50
years ago. Now, these debates are strongly discouraged. While the
government has made arduous efforts to be more accountable,
transparent and tolerant -- promises the prime minister made in 2004
-- the results there, too, have been mixed.
Public discontent, largely kept under control, is simmering. In recent
months, nongovernmental organizations have organized street protests
to air a variety of grievances, from alleged discriminatory treatment
of minorities to concern over judicial reform. The police have quashed
these gatherings and harshly penalized the organizers. A few
individuals have even been detained under the Internal Security Act,
which allows for detention without trial, and this has created a
public outcry. But the government is holding firm; on Saturday, police
used tear gas and chemical-laced water cannons to disperse a crowd
marching for ethnic Indians' rights.
Mr. Abdullah's second term will undoubtedly be more challenging than
his first. He is no longer viewed as a transitional leader, but as a
politician who must stand on his own merits. He has taken several
positive actions to bolster economic growth through tax cuts,
infrastructure projects and increased public spending. But there are
also challenges that he can't control, such as a slowing global
economy and rising imported inflation. That makes his choice of
cabinet advisers particularly important.
Mr. Abdullah enters the election with a clear lead over Mr. Anwar's
opposition partners. But Malaysia is still a democracy. The value of
the vote rises with each election, as does voter sophistication. Mr.
Abdullah must therefore deliver on his political promises to maintain
his coalition's credibility.
Ms. Ismail, a former editor with the "New Straits Times," now heads
Salt Media Consultancy.