05 April, 2007

Malaysian Pledges to Defy Ban on His Return to Politics

Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's former deputy prime minister who served a six-year prison term widely seen as politically motivated, is reentering the fray in his country, saying he intends to defy a ban against him leading his party or running for office.

In an interview in Washington last week, Ibrahim said that instead of waiting for the five-year ban to expire next April, he will move to become party head and challenge the ban in court. The goal is to position his People's Justice Party to win a significant number of seats in Malaysia's next general election.

Ibrahim was fired in 1998 after falling out with his boss, then-Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir. International analysts say Ibrahim forced the issues of fighting corruption and ending the nexus between big business and government at the height of the Asian financial crisis.

After leading anti-government protests, he was tried and convicted on charges of corruption and sodomy, which he called trumped-up; the government denied any political motivation in the charges. The Malaysian Supreme Court overturned his sodomy conviction in September 2004, and he was released from prison because he had already completed his corruption sentence.

His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, has run the party, also known as Keadilan, while he was in jail and during the past three years while he lectured at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

He has also lectured at St. Anthony's College at Oxford University and the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Ibrahim's party will hold its annual conference May 25 and name him chief, said Aasil Ahmad, one of his aides. A government official known as the society registrar will decide whether the nomination can be confirmed.

"Assuming the registrar says no, we will then appeal in court," Ibrahim said. Courts are not known to be open in Malaysia, he said, "but some of the proceedings are made public and some information will filter through. I want to drag it through the courts so people will learn about their rights."

"Half a century after independence from colonial rule, we still have restrictions on the media," he added. "People want to see a more accountable government. Malaysians are sick and tired of this whole issue of corruption and nepotism."

Government needs to address "the flaws of capitalism" where there is "no concern for the welfare of the people," he said.

Ibrahim said he has received "quiet and discreet" support from various quarters in Malaysia. Under terms of his ban, he is not allowed to teach or set foot on any campus in his country.

Analysts expect Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to call an election for early next year before his government's five-year mandate runs out. Badawi's ruling Barisan Nasional, a coalition of 14 parties, controls more than 90 percent of the seats in Parliament.

Ibrahim said key candidates from his party have been barred from running in the past. It now has one seat of 219.

He plans to seek a parliamentary seat, which will likely bring on more controversy, he said.

Ibrahim said he has been asked by other opposition parties such as the largely ethnic Chinese and secular Democratic Action Party and the more religious Islamic Party of Malaysia to lead the opposition in the next election. But experts see his plan as an uphill battle.

"I think he already has a voice in politics," said Bridget Welsh, an assistant professor in Southeast Asia studies at Johns Hopkins. "But is the system fair? Not yet." No one has ever risen to prime minister from the ranks of the opposition, she said.

Ibrahim faces the difficulty of trying to appeal across ethnic and religious lines, she added. Wide ideological divisions remain between secularists and people whose political identity is rooted in Islam, Welsh said.

He will also have to articulate an economic plan to a pragmatic population that has been satisfied with the current government's ability to deliver rising affluence, she said.

"The obstacles remain considerable and any gain in political power will not occur overnight," she said. "Ibrahim is making a political comeback, but to actually get political power is going to be a longer process."

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 5, 2007



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