25 January, 2008

Anwar plans Malaysia comeback

Anwar Ibrahim will kickstart his political comeback through a delayed by-election if the Malaysian government plans parliamentary elections in March, before a ban on the former deputy prime minister’s involvement in politics ends.

Speaking at a news briefing in Hong Kong on Thursday, Malaysia’s de facto opposition leader said that about 20 MPs had offered to stand down to clear a path for his return to electoral politics.

Mr Anwar was a leading figure in the ruling United Malays National Organisation until 1999, when he was imprisoned on corruption charges that he maintains were baseless. A subsequent sodomy conviction was overturned and Mr Anwar was released in 2004, but is banned from serving in any government or political positions until April 8. His wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, heads the opposition People’s Justice party and occupies the party’s only seat in parliament.

Abdullah Badawi, Malaysia’s prime minister, does not have to call elections until next year, but wants to hold them before, say government advisers, cutting popular fuel subsidies. An early election would also have the advantage of pre-empting Mr Anwar’s formal return to politics.

The opposition leader’s imminent return comes at an awkward time for Mr Abdullah’s Umno-dominated National Front coalition government, which is facing rising inflation, increasing crime and social tension among the country’s Indian minority over alleged racial discrimination. Only on Wednesday, Mr Abdullah warned his party leaders not to expect the landslide victory he achieved in 2004, when he took over as prime minister.

Last month, more than 10,000 ethnic Indians took to the streets of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, to protest alleged racial discrimination.

Indians account for just 8 eight per cent of the country’s ethnically diverse population and have traditionally been a quiet minority, overshadowed by Malays and Chinese, who account for 52 per cent and 25 per cent of the population respectively. Malays are the beneficiaries of the government’s New Economic Policy, an affirmative action programme designed to counter the perceived economic dominance of Malaysia’s Chinese minority.

“The government feels under siege because in the past they have taken the Indians for granted,” Mr Anwar said. “I don’t believe they will get anywhere close to 40 per cent of the Indian vote.”

He also criticised the government’s crackdown on the Indian protests, which included the detention of five leaders without trial under a draconian, colonial-era internal security act. “Can you imagine this small Indian majority threatening the majority,” Mr Anwar asked. “But that’s the [government’s] line.”

In its attempt to build a multi-racial coalition, the PJP has been critical of the NEP, but has stopped short of calling for it to be scrapped. “Only by protecting the Malays can there be stability in the country,” Mr Anwar said. “The benefit accrued to the cronies is far more than is benefiting the Malays … The reason Umno wants to preserve the NEP is to protect their turf.”

By Tom Mitchell in Hong Kong. Financial Times

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