24 July, 2008

In Malaysian Politics, Fighting Dirty Is the Norm

In the center of a political farce unfolding in Malaysia, steeped in conflicts over race and patronage, is a battle between two ambitious politicians slugging it out to become the resource-rich country's prime minister.

In one corner is 60-year-old Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, a one-time Muslim firebrand who was ousted from Malaysia's ruling party a decade ago and imprisoned on sex charges before his conviction was overturned.

Now one of the Islamic world's best-known personalities — with friends ranging from former US deputy defence chief Paul Wolfowitz and ex-World Bank president James Wolfensohn to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — Anwar leads an opposition alliance that has badly shaken the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

Among his goals: tearing down a system of race-based affirmative-action programmes that have helped the ethnic Malay-dominated BN to rule this multiracial country for 50 years.

Anwar's rival is Datuk Seri Najib Razak, 54, deputy prime minister and designated successor to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has said he will hand over power in mid-2010. Soft-spoken, cautious and a defender of Malay privileges, British-educated Najib epitomises the country's political establishment. His father was Malaysia's second premier and created the country's pro-Malay affirmative-action policy in 1971.

The leadership battle has turned into a bruising personal confrontation, full of lurid allegations involving sodomy, infidelity and even murder.

The struggle also shows how this economically successful nation of 27 million — often touted as a democratic model for the Islamic world — has failed to develop independent governing institutions to safeguard its long-term prosperity and stability. Instead, Malaysia's political fate is still tied largely to powerful individuals and their feuds.

After succeeding Malaysia's authoritarian premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 2003, Abdullah has made a stab at reforming the police and judiciary and has relaxed the government's grip on the media. But many Malaysians, conditioned by effective one-party rule under the BN since independence in 1957, are deeply suspicious of government authority and assume the justice system, bureaucracy and the press are still subservient to political pressure.

So with Abdullah, 68, now widely seen as a weak, lame-duck premier, the political spotlight has turned to the Najib-Anwar battle.

"Malaysian politics is all about individuals rather than parties — and as a result character assassination is an effective tool here," said political analyst Shamsul Amin Baruddin at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

As political face-offs go, this one is a humdinger.

Last week, Malaysia arrested Anwar on suspicion of sodomy — a crime in Malaysia — shortly after he announced his intention to run for Parliament and take up formal leadership of Malaysia's opposition alliance. The allegation — which Anwar denies — closely mirrors those levelled at him in 1998, when he was sacked from the government and spent six years in jail until a sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004.

Anwar blames Najib's camp for derailing the political momentum he had been building for the opposition until a former junior aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, complained to police on June 29 that Anwar had sodomised him.

Najib has repeatedly denied having anything to do with the matter and says the allegations against Anwar aren't politically motivated. Many Malaysians, however, believe Anwar is being smeared; local opinion polls show a majority of people questioned say they think the allegations against the charismatic politician are fabricated.

Anwar faces pressure on another front, too: The BN is pushing hard to woo the Malay-based PAS away from the opposition alliance, portraying Anwar as too willing to give up ethnic-Malay privileges in his quest for power. Najib's allies, in particular, have attacked Anwar — who was in the BN government himself for 16 years in the 1980s and 1990s and backed many of the policies he now criticises — casting him as a smooth-talking opportunist, who readily shifts political positions to curry favour with would-be supporters.

Anwar has been slinging some mud of his own. After the most recent sodomy accusation against him, Anwar presented to the local media a private investigator, who alleged that Najib was linked to a Mongolian model who was killed in Malaysia in 2006 — for which Najib's key political adviser and two policemen, including his former security chief, are now on trial.

The investigator — who later retracted his allegations and is now in hiding — initially said in a sworn deposition that he had been informed that Najib had been involved in a sexual relationship with the Mongolian woman. The remains of the model, who had been shot and then blown up with C4 plastic explosives, were found in a jungle.

Najib has denied any involvement in the death of the Mongolian woman, whom he says he never met.

The political combatants' next moves are unclear. Anwar is free on bail and is touring the country, drumming up support for his cause while he still can. He says he fears re-arrest at any time and has refused to provide a DNA sample to investigators, on the grounds they might try to frame him with his genetic material.

Some Malaysians may be beginning to tire of the mud-slinging and accusations and would prefer to have more substantive debates over the direction of their country. In recent years, the growth of Internet forums and cellphone text messages has provided people here with an alternative to the government-controlled mainstream media and a place they can discuss political and economic reforms.

"Malaysians now have a lot more confidence in exercising their electoral rights and are looking at the big issues regardless of the government of the day," said Khoo Kay Peng, an independent political analyst and author.

As the war of words between Anwar and Najib grinds on, meanwhile, their feud could yet derail the ambitions of both men for supremacy in a political system which, where possible, still prizes consensus over confrontation. The danger for both is that their alleged personal flaws could ultimately tarnish their public images and undermine their aspirations.

"Some other candidate could emerge to take over," UKM’s Prof Shamsul said.

- The Wall Street Journal Asia, via Malaysia Today

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