Does democracy in Malaysia really depend on Anwar Ibrahim? If it does, Malaysian democracy is in trouble.
Anwar is back in jail, and for a long time: at least five years imprisonment, and another five years’ ban from political activity after that.
He says he doesn’t care: “Whether it’s five years or 10 it doesn’t matter to me anymore. They can give me 20 years. I don’t give a damn.”
But of course he cares. By the time he’s free to resume his role as opposition leader, he’ll be at least 77, and the People’s Alliance, the three-party opposition coalition that he created, can’t wait 10 years for him to be free. The real question is whether they can continue to hang together without him as leader.
Malaysia is formally a democracy, but the same coalition of parties, the National Front, has won every election since 1957.
In the 2008 and 2013 elections, however, Anwar’s coalition began to cut seriously into the National Front vote.
Indeed, in 2013 the People’s Alliance actually got a majority of the votes cast, although the ruling coalition still won more seats in parliament.
But last Monday, the Federal Court ruled that he was guilty on a charge of sodomy (which is illegal in this Muslim-majority country) and sent him to jail.
He had previously been acquitted of the charge, and many people in Malaysia suspect that the prosecutor appealed the case to move it up into the superior courts, which are more open to political influence than the lower courts. In other words, they’re getting him out of the way.
The first time Anwar was charged with sodomy was in 1998, less than a month after he was fired as deputy prime minister. He had risen rapidly to the country’s second highest political post thanks to the support of long-ruling prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, but then he fell out with Mahathir and his life became a nightmare.
Many Malaysians and almost all outside observers believed that the sodomy charge was politically motivated, but Anwar was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison. After the Court of Appeal overturned his conviction in 2004, he promptly set about drawing the disparate strands of the opposition together to create a coalition capable of challenging the National Front government that he had once served.
The People’s Alliance was successful enough in the 2008 election to frighten the government, and by the strangest coincidence a second charge of sodomy was brought against Anwar only a couple of months later.
Once again the “evidence” was flimsy and contradictory, and Anwar was acquitted in 2012 on the grounds (as the judge said) that, “the court is always reluctant to convict on sexual offences without corroborative evidence.”
But the prosecutor immediately appealed the verdict, and last Monday Anwar was found guilty again. He’s back in jail, and everybody in Malaysia is wondering what this will do to the hitherto irresistible rise of the People’s Alliance.
It’s a good question, because the People’s Alliance is a curious coalition of two secular parties that want to stop the law from giving different rights and privileges to different ethnic and religious groups, and an Islamist party that wants to create an “Islamic state” in a country where only 60% of the population is Muslim. Anwar managed to hold these parties together, but the government clearly believes that without him they will fall apart.
It may be right. In the real world, cunning and ruthlessness often beat idealism and enthusiasm.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.