01 May, 2007

Anwar shakes up Malaysia politics

"Anwar still has presence... a lot of political pull. And he's a rarity in Malaysia; a politician who has real cross-cultural appeal "

- Dr Johan Saravanamuttu

Malaysian political scientist

"Anwar has always been obsessed with the notion of becoming prime minister"

- Chandra Muzaffar
Former Keadilan member

Malaysia is picking over the results of a key by-election that saw the opposition People's Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) defeated by a three to two margin.

The by-election was called because of the death of a pro-governing party incumbent.

But it gained importance outside Ijok, a semi-rural seat near the capital, because it was Keadilan's first electoral test since Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's former deputy leader, was released from jail in September 2004.

The by-election became as much about the possible return to prominence of Anwar - seen as the opposition's "leader in waiting" - as it had to do with the people of Ijok.

For almost two weeks the little backwater of small towns and oil palm plantations was awash with Malaysia's orang besar, or big people, as it prepared to deliver what was almost certainly the last test of public opinion before the whole country goes to the polls, possibly as soon as early next year.

The campaign was described as one of the nastiest in living memory.

There were sporadic reports of violence, and the police are investigating 28 different incidents relating to the campaign.

Both the governing party and the opposition traded insults rather than policy ideas.

But in the end most of the area drifted towards Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's ruling party.

Political battle-front

The declaration of the result did little to silence the opposition, which immediately levelled allegations of vote rigging and bribery at the governing party.

"This is not a defeat for our party," declared Mr Anwar. "This is an insult to our democratic system."

For its part, the government used the result to declare Mr Anwar's return to politics stillborn.

"[The opposition] did everything... and Anwar Ibrahim was there every day... they resorted to all sorts of tactics, including hurling accusations," said Mr Abdullah.

Others, though, point to that fact that Mr Anwar's reappearance on the campaign trail after an absence of almost 10 years still sparked a lot of interest.

"He still has presence, he still has a lot of political pull," said Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, a Malaysian political scientist currently with the Institute for South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

"And he's a rarity in Malaysia; a politician who has real cross-cultural appeal."

And that seems to have been the reason why Malaysia's governing National Front was determined not to lose.

Ten million dollars were spent in the district to woo just 12,000 voters !!

Three tarmac-laying crews were hard at work throughout the campaign patching up local roads. Schools were repainted, street lighting installed and drains repaired.

One village reportedly even received a surprise gift of 200 sewing machines.

"Ten years of development in 10 days," was the comment of one cabinet minister, begging the question of why it took a by-election for the district to finally get its dues.

That it did at all owed a great deal to the ruling National Front's fear of Mr Anwar.

Inter-ethnic balance

The National Front has in one form or another governed Malaysia uninterrupted since independence in 1957 and, despite allegations that it has routinely manipulated the democratic process, its legitimacy stems from one fact above all others.

Malaysia is a multi-racial, multi-religious society; just over half the population is Malay, a little more than a quarter is Chinese, 7-8% is Indian, and a host of minorities, mostly from Malaysian Borneo, make up the balance.

"The government has forged an inclusive coalition that, though imperfect, tries to balance the interests of all Malaysia's races," said political analyst James Wong.

"The opposition has never managed to do the same. The government's real worry is that Mr Anwar might change that."

Chandra Muzaffar, one of Malaysia's leading thinkers and a former member of Keadilan does not think he will.

"The National Front has always been good at maintaining an inter-ethnic arrangement to make sure all races are represented," Dr Chandra told the BBC.

He believes that Mr Anwar's inclusive rhetoric, calling for the abolition of racial quotas and handouts to Malays is merely a cynical means to an end.

"Anwar has always been obsessed with the notion of becoming prime minister," he said and points to Keadilan's decision to field an ethnic Malay candidate in Ijok where the community is in a majority.

"There's no Indian majority constituency in the country, but the government always fielded an Indian in Ijok because they form a large minority there. Anwar's party didn't respect that and they paid the price."

But both Mr Chandra and Mr Wong agree that Malaysia needs a better opposition if it is to get better government, and that the opposition will not be effective until it is united.

And few believe the election result has condemned Mr Anwar to oblivion.

Meanwhile back in Ijok many locals are simply laughing off the politics and point to the windfall that the campaign brought them.

As one wag told the BBC: "All it proves is the biggest favour a Malaysian politician can do for his district is to die in office!"

It would be a less damning comment on Malaysian politics if there were not a certain measure of truth in that.

By Jonathan Kent
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur



Anonymous Anonymous said...

In a real democracy there should be strong opposition.Anwar can do it.

May 02, 2007 9:54 AM  

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