Unlike 1998, new sodomy claims but government on back foot

From the Economist Intelligence Unit

JULY 6 ā€“ Anwar Ibrahim, the country’s former deputy prime minister and now de facto opposition leader, stands accused of sodomy for the second time in a decade. Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia and sodomy carries a 20-year prison term. Anwar has argued that the case is politically-motivated, fabricated by the government in an attempt to derail the growing threat posed by the opposition.

He has pledged to fight, and has called on his supporters to rise up against the United Malays National Organisation (Umno)-led coalition government. Government denials of having initiated the accusations are unconvincing, but in any case the affair is unlikely to yield much political benefit to the administration.

Instead, the potential damage it could cause to both the government and the business environment is substantial; markets are jittery, and the central bank may already have intervened to support the ringgit.

‘Conspiracy’ Number Two

The allegations were made by a former aide, Saiful Bukhari, who served as a volunteer in Mr Anwar’s offices for a few months. He has accused MrAnwar of several separate assaults.

Polls suggest that a majority believes Mr Anwar to be innocent and the allegations to be part of a political conspiracy. Mr Saiful is being portrayed negatively by the press, which makes much of the fact that he dropped out of both university and pilot training. It has also been suggested that he has strong links with deputy prime minister, Najib Razak, although Mr Najib refutes this.

This is the second time that Mr Anwar has faced sodomy allegations. In 1998, his high-flying career stalled when the then-prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, dismissed him over similar accusations. Mr Anwar was imprisoned, and severely beaten in police custody. The conviction was overturned in 2004 after he’d spent six years in prison.

Notably, Mr Anwar has since brought cases against two of the officials involved–the police chief, Musa Hassan, and the attorney-general, Abdul Gani Patail–accusing them of faking evidence against him. As now, Mr Anwar last time argued that powerful politicians were behind the allegations, with most people viewing them as a means by which Dr Mahathir could engineer his troublesome colleague’s downfall.

Faced with the new charges, Mr Anwar took refuge in the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur, arguing that he feared for his life. He only emerged after receiving assurances that he would not be harmed.

Playing a dangerous game

The government will continue to deny all involvement in the new allegations, but this is unlikely to dispel suspicion over its role. The government has previously shown that it will ‘play dirty’ when it feels threatened, most notably by cutting funding to opposition-held states. Given its current fragile position, a growing and increasingly popular opposition constitutes the main threat to its survival.

That threat should not be overstated, however. The opposition is a loose collection of disparate elements. Mr Anwar has brought a degree of unity, but the new cohesiveness depends largely on his continued leadership; removing this lynchpin would create serious problems for the opposition.

But under his leadership, the opposition is a formidable force. As the situation stands, it is just 30 seats away from securing its own parliamentary majority. Before the latest allegations emerged, Mr Anwar had suggested that he had the assurances of enough defectors to bring down the government. He had been planning to contest forthcoming by-elections and local papers were starting to describe him as the ‘prime minister in waiting’. These plans have subsequently been shelved.

Mr Anwar spoke at an opposition rally on July 2 during which he outlined his plans and called on his supporters to protest against the allegations laid against him. He also urged the government to step aside, arguing that it was time for a new administration, accusing the administration of mismanagement, particularly in handling fuel prices, which were last month increased by 41%.

Some observers have argued that in light of the public mood, Mr Anwar will emerge well from the sodomy debacle. They view the situation as likely to backfire on the government and rally support for the opposition.

However, much depends on how the situation is handled. Although the government took a substantial knock in general elections held in March, more recently it won a victory of sorts when the prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, saw off not only a threatened confidence motion but also secured parliamentary support for the fuel price rise.

This was the first time since the polls that the government had shown any signs of finding its feet, and prompted speculation of a comeback. It also removed the pressure on Mr Badawi to step down ahead of ruling party elections in December.

Possible scenarios

The sodomy charges have yet to be made formally. Given Mr Anwar’s standing and current levels of support, the public’s increasing cynicism with the government, the fact that previous such allegations were overturned, and what Mr Anwar says is a strong alibi, it is possible that it will be judged either unwise to lodge charges or there will be insufficient grounds on which to do so.

If charges are laid, the trial will be lengthy and politically-charged. Given the opposition’s current mood and relative strength, there would be a hostile reaction towards moves against Mr Anwar, which could inflame broader tensions. The issues that underscored last year’s unprecedented protests – such as calls to dismantle the system of positive discrimination enjoyed by ethnic Malays – have not dissipated and have the potential to feed off opposition activity.

Certainly at this stage it is difficult to envisage Mr Anwar coming out of a trial poorly. If he were jailed, although this would clearly pose significant problems for the opposition, it would further elevate his standing, with the opposition leader regarded as again falling foul of political machinations. If he won the case, or indeed if charges were not pressed, Mr Anwar would be regarded as having secured an important political victory.

Timing is everything in this instance. Mr Anwar will be seeking a quick victory, ideally with no charges pressed. Various issues ranging from rising inflation, to judicial appointment-fixing allegations against Dr Mahathir, and speculation that Mr Najib was involved in the high-profile case of a murdered Mongolian model are fuelling public sentiment against the government. In these circumstances, a victory for Mr Anwar would bolster his opposition campaign, and point to the opposition making further gains during 2008.

The worst-case scenario for Mr Anwar is a trial that leads to imprisonment. In the current circumstances, this looks unlikely. This is not 1998. The political landscape is very different and the prospect of fresh sodomy allegations against Mr Anwar, something the government would once have relished, now places it on the defensive.

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