Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Vancouverian View of Malaysian Politics


Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver Sun
Published: Friday, April 18, 2008

Revenge is sweet and Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim seems intent on savouring every drop.

A decade after Anwar was elbowed into the political scrap heap when a compliant court convicted him of fabricated sodomy and corruption charges, he is poised to become prime minister.

Anwar's resurgence comes as the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), which has dominated the country's government since independence from Britain in 1957 and of which Anwar used to be deputy leader, implodes into a brawl of backstabbing, power lust and greed.

What set off this ferret fight was March 8 elections when voters among the southeast Asian nation's 20 million people, despairing of the endemic corruption, nepotism and cronyism in the UMNO-led National Front ruling coalition, gave it a mighty face-slap.

The National Front did win a majority in the 222-seat parliament, but it lost the two-thirds majority it has enjoyed for more than 50 years and the opposition alliance led by Anwar won power in five of Malaysia's 13 states.

The wind of change appears to be blowing Anwar's way and almost immediately within UMNO the calls began for the removal of the gentlemanly but ineffective prime minister and party leader, Abdullah Badawi.

Abdullah took over the leadership in 2003 on the retirement after 22 years at the helm of the irascible and recalcitrant Mahathir Mohamad.

It was Mahathir who engineered the downfall of his deputy, Anwar, when they fell out over how to deal with the Asian economic crisis of 1997. And it is Mahathir, 82, together with one of his sons, Mahathir Mukhriz, who are playing large roles in the campaign to dump Abdullah.

In one of the most open acts of rebellion so far, Mukhriz, who is an UMNO member of parliament, this week called on Abdullah to immediately transfer power to his deputy, Najib Razak, so the party can be stabilized and rehabilitated.

Well, Najib is not an obvious candidate for the role of cleansing new broom.

Najib is embroiled in a number of classic Malaysian procurement scandals from his time as defence minister.

Even more explosive is the trial of two of his bodyguards for the 2006 murder of Mongolian model and professional escort Altantuya Shaariibuu, the troublesome and demanding mistress of Najib's closest friend, Abdul Razak Baginda.

UMNO is the perfect example of a floundering political ship where the rats are rushing around hunting for life jackets.

This is a moment of huge opportunity for Anwar and his three-party coalition led by his People's Justice party, as he acknowledged on Monday at a mass rally in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Anwar's opposition alliance, the People's Coalition, won 82 seats in last month's election and needs to entice only 30 members from the government National Front to be able to claim power.

At Monday's rally, Anwar said he has been approached by many National Front MPs looking to cross the floor to the coming man.

"Yes, we have enough MPs to topple the government," he said. "We are saying here for the first time that we are ready to rule.

"But we will only enter when the majority is comfortable. Do we want to be a government with a two- or five-seat majority?"

The answer at the moment is clearly not.

While Anwar and his alliance have political power in Malaysia within their grasp, there are some significant hurdles to be negotiated.

The first is that Anwar must win a seat in parliament in a byelection. He did not become eligible to run until Monday when a five-year ban on his involvement electoral politics ran out.

Although his conviction and nine-year prison sentence for sodomy was overturned by the Federal Court in 2003 after Mahathir's retirement, he had already completed the six-year sentence for corruption, to which the ban was attached.

Then there's the question of whether he really wants to come to power with the aid of UMNO's deserters, who will be seen as soiled goods even if they are not. Few people will believe floor-crossers were not bought.

Meanwhile, the National Front is rushing to deter floor-crossers by making it illegal for MPs to change parties without fighting a byelection.

International Affairs Columnist Jonathan Manthorpe watches global events through the prism of 30 years experience as a foreign correspondent in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.