Sunday, April 13, 2008

Anwar crafting a comeback in Malaysia


The opposition's gains have thrown the United Malays National Organization, which has governed Malaysia since its independence in 1957, into disarray.

When he emerged from prison four years ago, Anwar Ibrahim was a weakened and gaunt figure all but written off by the Malaysian political elite.

On Monday, Anwar, resurgent and confident after leading opposition parties to their strongest gains in a half-century, will celebrate his political rehabilitation in front of an expected crowd of thousands of supporters at a soccer stadium in Kuala Lumpur.

During his nearly four decades in politics, Anwar, 60, has gone from being a radical Islamic student leader to deputy prime minister and then Malaysia's dissident-in-chief, imprisoned after a highly politicized trial. A ban on holding political office, imposed by the judge who in 1999 sentenced him to six years in prison for abuse of power, expires Monday, allowing Anwar to pursue the job he has coveted: prime minister.

"There's no rush," Anwar said in an interview at his office. "I don't need to be prime minister tomorrow."

Yet he and his allies have done anything but dawdle since capturing five of Malaysia's 13 states in the March 8 elections. The governing coalition won an uncomfortably slim 51 percent of the vote in that election, and Anwar says he is wooing defectors - he needs only 30 members of Parliament to cross over to bring down the federal government. He also recently forged a pact among the three main opposition groups called the People's Alliance to jointly govern the states they control.

The opposition's gains have thrown the United Malays National Organization, which has governed Malaysia since its independence in 1957, into disarray.

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the prime minister, is fighting for his political life. UMNO delegates from his home state of Penang, which the opposition captured in the March election, have called for him to step down, as have other influential figures inside the party, including Mahathir bin Mohamad, the long-serving former prime minister.

Abdullah is being challenged from within the party by Razaleigh Hamzah, a prince from the northern state of Kelantan and a former finance minister.

The differences between Razaleigh's and Anwar's quests for the premiership are striking: For the first time in decades, voters in multiethnic Malaysia are faced with a fundamental ideological choice of whether to continue with an authoritarian system largely segregated by race or to experiment with a more liberal democracy that treats ethnicity as secondary.

Razaleigh, 71, couches his bid in the traditional language of Malay nationalism, appealing to the largest of the country's three main ethnic groups.

"We successfully vanquished the scheming colonizer and continued our struggle to claim independence armed only with a devoted spirit towards our race, religion, culture and homeland," Razaleigh said in his speech announcing his challenge to Abdullah.

Anwar, by contrast, promises profound changes to the country's authoritarian laws and political system of ethnic segregation, in which each main ethnic group - Malay, Chinese and Indian - has traditionally had its own political party. His multiethnic partners have vowed to abolish an affirmative action system that gives ethnic Malays discounts on houses, scholarships and a quota of 30 percent of shares in companies listed on the stock market.

Since his release from prison, Anwar has rarely missed an opportunity to call for "accountability and good governance" in Malaysia, where dissidents are regularly jailed without trial, students are banned from politics and government contracts are handed out to friends and allies of those in power.

He says his goal now is to put this rhetoric into action.

The People's Alliance has declared that government contracts in the states it controls are subject to open bidding. Government officers in Selangor, the wealthy state next to Kuala Lumpur, have been ordered to declare their assets.

In Perak, a large multiracial state, the government is handing out permanent land titles to members of the ethnic Chinese minority who were previously given only fixed-term leases. In Penang, the People's Alliance government is setting up interfaith councils that would review and debate the demolition of Hindu temples to make way for roads, as well as disputed religious conversions, a source of tension in recent years.

The People's Alliance is breaking religious and ethnic taboos, redefining the relationship between Muslims, who form the majority of Malaysia's 26 million people, and Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and other groups.

Although Anwar is a Malay Muslim and his coalition includes a conservative Islamic party, one of the first major initiatives of the People's Alliance was the approval of a giant, modern pig farm for the Chinese community.

Muslims consider pigs unclean, and the decision has been enthusiastically attacked by the governing coalition. Anwar says he and his allies are trying to prove that they can reach decisions on the country's thorniest issues.

"We will defend that," Anwar said of the pig farm. "Even relatively contentious issues of the Muslims we are able to deal with."

Anwar still needs to win over detractors from all three major ethnic groups, who call him a chameleon and say that his transformation from Islamic radical to champion of ethnic minorities smacks of expediency.

Anwar has long cultivated a diverse group of friends and allies, including Paul Wolfowitz, the former World Bank president; Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president; Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister; and leaders from across the Muslim world.

"To the Jews he is a Jew, to the Arabs he is an Arab Muslim and to the Americans he is a neocon," said Mahathir, who dismissed Anwar from government in 1998 after a power struggle. "He is able to give a good impression to all communities separately. But in front of a multiracial gathering he will find difficulty." Mahathir concluded that "a person who is not trusted by anyone would make a very bad prime minister."

Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency here, said that Malaysians had refrained from voting for the opposition in the past because of a fear of the unknown. But he detected less fear in this election and almost no regret by voters afterward.

A survey conducted a week after the election by the Merdeka Center found that although 72 percent of voters had not expected the sweeping gains made by Anwar and his allies, 81 percent said they were satisfied with the outcome. Three-quarters of the 1,024 voters polled said they wanted the government to "loosen the control on the media and the opposition movement."

Anwar is ready to capitalize on the sentiment. "Malaysia after 50 years of independence must have a mature political system," he said.

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