As Anwar Ibrahim is accused of sexual assault and rumours of conspiracy swirl, Malaysia is heading for real political upheaval
Simon Tisdall The Guardian UK
An accelerating national drama involving leading government figures, conspiracy claims, personal smears, sodomy allegations and a grizzly murder appears to be driving Malaysia inexorably towards its biggest political upheaval since independence in 1957.
Act one of this unfolding epic was played out in March’s general elections when the ruling National Front coalition suffered heavy losses at the hands of Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice party and its opposition allies. Although it held on to power, the government’s parliamentary majority was slashed to 30 seats.
The shock upset was ascribed to voter anger over perceived cronyism and corruption, discontent among Chinese and Indian minorities, and spiralling food and fuel prices. The results seriously wounded prime minister Abdullah Badawi, already criticised as a weak, uninspiring leader, and triggered a power struggle within his United Malays National Organisation.
Act two played out in late spring when former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, modern Malaysia’s most formidable leader who ruled for 22 years, resigned from Umno following Abdullah’s refusal to stand down. An exultant Anwar was meanwhile busily wooing ruling party defectors while predicting his opposition alliance would soon take power.
With Umno facing defeat for the first time since the British left, and with tens of millions of dollars in public contracts and patronage at stake, the plot has thickened in recent days in a sensational manner.
First Najib Razak, Malaysia’s ambitious deputy prime minister and Abdullah’s presumed heir, was linked in sworn court testimony to the 2006 murder of a Mongolian female translator with whom, it was claimed, he once had a sexual relationship. The killing of Altantuya Shaariibuu was particularly gruesome, her body having been blown to bits with explosives in a jungle clearing.
Then last week a university drop-out told police he had been sodomised by Anwar in a luxury apartment. The allegation was almost a replica of claims made against the married father-of-six in 1998 after he, then deputy prime minister, fell out with Mahathir. Anwar was beaten by police, tried, found guilty and jailed – only for the verdict to be overturned by the federal court after Mahathir retired.
Anwar has dismissed the allegation as a transparent, repeat attempt to smear him, part of a conspiracy that he said was hatched by Najib and high police officials to block his path to power. “He [Najib] feared that I will use the Altantuya case against him to embarrass him and probably lead to his downfall,” he said this week.
Najib firmly denies involvement in any conspiracy or plot and has assured Anwar of his safety after the opposition leader said he feared assassination. Najib also denies any connection with the murdered Mongolian.
Malaysia’s raucous media has meanwhile been having a field day. Writing in The Star, commentator Suhaimi Aznam even suggested Anwar had invented the sodomy allegation to embarrass the government – and labelled him a drama queen.
Mahathir also weighed in, saying he was “not surprised at all” by the new claim. And the complainant’s fiancée, who says shoes are her real passion in life, has told the papers she will stand by her man and bravely weather the storm.
Tian Chua, People Justice party information chief and a newly-elected MP, said the sodomy claim had backfired. “This allegation is not sticking. The latest poll shows 60% of people think it’s nonsense, only 10% believe it’s true,” he said.
“The government did it to get some breathing space, to deflect attention from the crumbling of their party. They are frightened because they know the people are disillusioned and see Anwar as a viable alternative.”
Tian said Anwar had started legal proceedings against his accuser and against senior police officers involved in the previous case 10 years ago. The opposition leader would also begin a “national fightback tour” or rallies, speeches and marches this weekend. “We are going on the offensive for the next 100 days,” he said. The final act of the drama would come in September when he predicted the opposition would have enough parliamentary seats to defeat the government.
Not everyone agrees that denouement is certain or even likely. Anwar’s political comeback has become one of the longest-running shows in south-east Asia. Abdullah has vowed to stay on. And Mahathir reportedly suffered a mild heart attack today. Amid the furore, cooler heads urge caution.
“I think we have to wait and reserve judgment until the police investigation [into the sodomy claim] is complete,” said a leading political analyst in Kuala Lumpur. “All of this is beginning to resemble a circus. We are becoming a laughing stock.”