ASIAWATCH — Speculation is rampant as to what impact the ruling in the sodomy case against the opposition leader will have on the fortunes of both his party and Prime Minister Najib Razak’s UMNO. Luke Hunt Reports.
After two years of graphic and often offending evidence Malaysians will find out tomorrow whether opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, will spend up to 20 years behind bars when a verdict is handed down in his sodomy trial.
Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia and Mr Anwar’s supporters maintain the charges that have made him a cause celebre are politically motivated and the verdict a foregone conclusion. The government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, however, insists the allegations are a matter for the courts alone.
Regardless, the verdict will follow months of behind the scenes political posturing and manoeuvring designed to shore up Mr Najib’s political fortunes by his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) ahead of a probable early election.
Insiders say that election could be called shortly after Chinese New Year, as early as February, but the reality is Mr Najib can go to the polls any time he likes before the next scheduled poll falls due in mid-2013.
“Najib can see the benefits in calling an early poll. He can win his own electoral mandate, shut down the critics in his own party and out,” one long-time UMNO observer said.
“And his chances of leading UMNO to a much-improved performance over the debacle of 2008 will be enhanced if Anwar is not around,” she said.
Realising his electoral chances have been damaged by public indignation over the sexual nature of the charges, Mr Anwar has sought to counter by launching a nationwide tour last week culminating in a street rally and show of support expected tomorrow outside the High Court.
Opposition figures say up to 100,000 people are expected but others, like Shamsul Iskandar _ the youth wing leader of Mr Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (RKP) _ said he would be happy with a turnout of 20,000 amid fears of a confrontation with the authorities.
Police have received at least 168 complaints by business groups as well as politicians who claim such a gathering would disrupt public order.
Given the ugly violence which erupted last July when police and politicians, at the behest of Mr Najib, launched an ugly crackdown on peaceful protests calling for electoral reform, a feared showdown between opposition supporters and the authorities appears likely.
Kuala Lumpur police chief Mohamad Salleh has sounded an ominous note: “If anyone proceeds to participate in this gathering, the police will take stern action, according to existing laws.”
Mr Anwar, who is married with six children, faced fresh sodomy charges in 2008 shortly after his PKR party delivered the government of then prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi an electoral drubbing when it lost its cherished two-thirds majority in parliament.
The opposition currently has more than a third of the seats in parliament and controls four of Malaysia’s 13 states. It was UMNO’s worst performance in more than half a century of rule and Mr Badawi was ousted in a party coup to make way for Mr Najib.
Graphic details of what allegedly occurred have been splashed across the front pages of government friendly newspapers ever since Mr Anwar’s 26-year-old former aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, began testifiying that Anwar forced him to have sex in an apartment.
DNA samples from semen found on Mr Saiful’s body allegedly matched Mr Anwar’s, however, defence lawyers argued that Mr Saiful’s testimony was riddled with inconsistencies and that the DNA samples could have been unlawfully obtained and planted on Mr Saiful.
There were also claims that forensic evidence was handled incorrectly.
Mr Anwar has said the anti-sodomy laws enforced by authorities to put him on trial are archaic and could breed intolerance. He is bracing for the possibility of a long prison sentence.
The charges have been widely condemned around the world by prominent figures, especially when considered in light of how Mr Anwar was dealt with over a previous jail term that stemmed from differences with former Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir.
Under Mr Mahathir, Mr Anwar was touted as a future leader until the pair fell out primarily over when and if he would assume the top post and differences over how to handle the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
He was sacked as deputy prime minister and put on trial on charges of sodomising his family’s ex-driver and for abuse of power. He denied the charges, was severely bashed while in police custody, found guilty and jailed. Huge street demonstrations followed and Malaysia’s top court eventually overturned the sodomy conviction and he was released from prison in 2004, after six years behind bars.
Figures as diverse as Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson have warned Malaysia that it has tarnished its business reputation by pursuing Mr Anwar and urged Mr Najib to intervene while governments around the world have supported his cause. In 2006, Mr Anwar said he had been asked to apply for the post of UN secretary-general.
Mr Najib ignored all pleas to intervene and has launched his own charm offensive.
He backed down from a previous tough stance and announced he would consider electoral reforms. He has also said he would repeal widely loathed laws that curtail civil liberties including the Internal Securities Act introduced by UMNO after Malaysia won independence from Britain in 1957.
Mr Najib has also sought to open up the economy which discriminates in favour of native Malays over other ethnic groups in business and education and reign in Islamic hardliners who persistently antagonise the country’s Christians, Buddhist and Hindu populations.
In October, Mr Najib handed down an election-friendly budget and importantly he has followed Mr Badawi’s lead and dramatically improved relations with the West.
But if he fails to win back the two-thirds majority he could face a leadership challenge from his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, a staunch supporter of Malay nationalism and an Islamic firebrand who courted controversy by ending the use of English as the medium for teaching science and mathematics.
Still Mr Anwar insists his PKR three-party alliances can beat the UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional coalition at the next election with an agenda based on curbing corruption and racial discrimination. He says contingency plans are in place in case he goes to jail.
Assuming he is jailed, much of his responsibilities within the PKR will probably fall on the shoulders of his daughter, Nurul Izzah, who became de facto opposition leader when her father was previously jailed and unable to stand in 2008 because of his conviction for abuse of power.
“The likelihood of our winning elections … is not a far-fetched idea,” Mr Anwar told the Associated Press recently. “We believe that change is imminent and for the benefit of all Malaysians.”
Whether Mr Anwar can oust UMNO from power remains to be seen. If he continues in politics, it will probably have to be done from behind bars and success will depend largely on how he, his supporters, the police and UMNO politicians behave on Monday.
This story first appeared in Spectrum, Sunday Bangkok Post.