Rival pretenders giving Abdullah space

From the South China Morning Post
Posted by SM Maulana

JULY 6 – Two powerful political rivals are battling to become Malaysia’s next prime minister. And the incumbent, a weakened Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, appears more amused than alarmed. As his rivals slug it out, Mr Abdullah, who was under mounting pressure to take the blame for the March 8 election losses and resign, has won some breathing space. The rivals are not even in direct political combat but attacking each other by exploiting personal scandals.

The charismatic Anwar Ibrahim, 61, who made a spectacular comeback in the election at the head of a resurgent three-party People’s Alliance opposition coalition and immediately styled himself as prime minister-in-waiting, finds himself back where he was 10 years ago -denying sodomy, this time involving a 23-year-old aide.

“One week Anwar was feverishly working to topple Mr Abdullah through engineering defections and the next he is on the defensive denying sodomy. A worse nightmare is unimaginable,” said political scientist Wong Chin Huat.

The accusation, dismissed by Mr Anwar as a fabrication, has upset his plan to become prime minister within weeks.

His advisers, lawyers and top party leaders, who were all focused on toppling Mr Abdullah, are now circling the wagons around their embattled master.

Mr Anwar says Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, his rival for the top job, is behind the sodomy allegations. “He engineered this,” Mr Anwar repeatedly said on Wednesday. Mr Najib strenuously denies the charge.

While Mr Najib and Mr Anwar are rivals for Mr Abdullah’s job, the prime minister fears Mr Najib more because of the support he commands within the United Malays National Organisation.

Mr Najib is fighting to save his career from charges, made recently by an Anwar associate, that his formidable wife, Rosmah Mansor, engineered the murder of a 26-year-old Mongolian woman.

Mr Najib, the son of Malaysia’s revered second prime minister Abdul Razak, is powerful in Umno but his standing in society has taken a hit since the October 2006 murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian model with whom, according to court documents, his close friend and political adviser Abdul Razak Baginda had been having an affair that later soured – with Shaariibuu demanding US$500,000 to keep quiet.

Abdul Razak and two Special Forces police officers who guarded Mr Najib have been charged with murder, and the prosecution rested its case last month after a 140-day trial.

However, prosecutors offered no motive for the murder except that Abdul Razak feared his wife would discover the affair and had turned to police Deputy Superintendent Musa Safri, an aide-de-camp to Mr Najib, for help. The court heard that Mr Musa connected Abdul Razak with the two officers, who told him they would solve the “problem”.

Mr Musa did not appear as a witness, a fact, critics say, that not only shows poor handling of the case but ensured the evidence did not point to people higher up.

Mr Anwar has been constantly exploiting the Shaariibuu issue to discredit Mr Najib.

The Shaariibuu case exploded in public again on June 21 when Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who runs a popular political website critical of Mr Abdullah and is a close associate of Mr Anwar, made a statutory declaration in which he claimed Ms Rosmah and two army colonels were present when Shaariibuu’s body was blown up with C4 explosives in a jungle clearing on the night of October 19, 2006.

The politically damaging allegation has been strenuously denied by Mr Najib and his wife, and the two colonels have filed defamation actions.

Police are investigating Raja Petra for publishing “false news”. But Ms Rosmah has said she would not sue as she had “more important” things to do. Within days the sodomy charge was pinned on Mr Anwar.

“It gives the impression it is a tit-for-tat between the two feuding leaders,” a European diplomat said.

The war between the two hardened on Thursday after Mr Anwar scored another coup with a sworn declaration by private investigator Balasubramaniam Perumal, who was hired by Abdul Razak in October 2006 to stop Shaariibuu from harassing him.

Mr Balasubramaniam said he had seen a text message from Mr Najib to Abdul Razak which said: “I am seeing IGP [inspector general of police] at 11am today … matter will be solved … be cool.”

It was the first direct link between Mr Najib and Shaariibuu to have surfaced. The investigator also alleged that Mr Najib knew Shaariibuu, had had sex with her and introduced her to Abdul Razak. He told a packed press conference with Mr Anwar beside him that he had told all this to police investigators in 2006, but they had left it out of the trial.

But then in a dramatic turnaround on Friday, Mr Balasubramaniam made another declaration, claiming he had made the damning allegations against Mr Najib under duress.

Mr Anwar is not having an easy time either, after several bombshells landed on his desk in the past week.

The first was that police had classified their investigation as a sodomy inquiry, indicating they had received a medical report and were convinced sodomy had taken place.

Mr Anwar dismissed the classification out of hand, saying the aide had to answer, “not me”.

But Mr Anwar has admitted he went to the luxury condominium where the incident is alleged to have taken place, for “meetings”.

He also refused to answer whether the aide had flown with him and stayed in the same hotels in Hong Kong, Jakarta and Singapore, where Mr Anwar had recently been.

“My lawyers have advised me against answering. But rest assured I am not involved and I have alibis.”

Police sources said the investigation had been widened to include places Mr Anwar and his aide had travelled together. “It is a full-blown
investigation now,” a senior police officer said on condition of anonymity.

The scandal will cripple Mr Anwar politically if he is charged in court and incriminating details, if any, are made public, political analysts

“He can’t survive a second round of court hearings without severe political damage,” an aide conceded. “We are all worried sick what the
other side has.”

In the meantime Mr Anwar has gone on the offensive against two of his opponents – Inspector-General of Police Musa Hassan and Attorney General Gani Patail – accusing them of fabricating evidence against him in 1998 when he was first charged with sodomy.

The two were involved in investigating and prosecuting Mr Anwar the first time around and have since risen to the pinnacle of their professions. The two have distanced themselves from the new case and are subjects of a separate investigation over alleged fabrication of evidence. Mr Anwar is demanding the two be suspended to ensure the sodomy investigation is conducted fairly.

Ordinary Malaysians are dumbfounded by the raft of scandals. While most polled said they believed Mr Anwar was being framed, an equal number said they were not convinced they had heard everything about the murder of Shaariibuu.

“Political ambitions are fuelling the revelations that are coming hot and fast about the sodomy and murder,” retired lawyer Raymond Lim said. “This is a power play among the political elites for the big prize.”

Mr Anwar retains much public support, with polls showing a majority think he has been set up.

“You can’t blame people for seeing conspiracy in the sodomy charges because of the uncanny similarities between now and 1998. Then, as now, Mr Anwar was one step away from being prime minister before he was cut down,” political scientist Wong Chin Huat, who is with Monash University’s Kuala Lumpur campus, said.

On the other hand most Malaysians never bought the story that prosecutors had offered during the Shaariibuu trial. “The buck does not stop at [Abdul Razak], it goes higher up,” said Raja Petra, the webmaster.

On Tuesday Mr Anwar spoke to 9,000 cheering supporters in a football stadium, where he warned Mr Abdullah to drop the sodomy inquiry or face mass protests.

“I will fight every inch or the way day and night, and mobilise the people,” Mr Anwar said to applause.

Significantly, the police announced on Thursday that they and the army were holding a joint internal security and public order exercise. The last time the army was called out was to quell the 1969 race riots during which scores of ethnic Chinese were shot dead.

Political observers see an ominous ring to the announcement, coming as it does in the middle of a political storm and warnings by Mr Anwar that his supporters will take to the streets as they did in 1998.

The flash point may come as early as today, when Mr Anwar is expected to speak at a rally. Police warned him to cancel the rally but Mr Anwar has vowed to go ahead.


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