Author: Yang Razali Kassim, RSIS
The jailing of Anwar Ibrahim following a second sodomy conviction could trigger a chain of events that could shake up Malaysian politics. Unlike after his first jailing in 1998, the opposition, which he leads, is already split and could crumble. But this may well play out as Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is currently under siege within his ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), fights for his own survival. Anwar currently is serving a jail term of five years for what he maintains was a political conspiracy by his enemies, including Prime Minister Najib.
Unless pardoned by the Malaysian King, the verdict could well end the 67-year-old Anwar’s political career. Besides losing his parliamentary seat, by the time he is released, he would be 72 making any political comeback difficult. But the former deputy prime minister has in the past proven to be like a cat with nine lives — and might just have one more. His family’s move to petition for a royal pardon was unexpected, but that prevented Anwar from losing his parliamentary seat pending the King’s decision. Anwar did not make the appeal, insisting on his innocence.
In 2000, two years after he was sacked as deputy premier following a clash with then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad over the handling of the Asian financial crisis, Anwar was jailed for his first sodomy conviction. He was released four years later when that conviction was overturned by the court. Anwar countered his latest court verdict with a vow to continue his fight from behind bars, thus promising to turn himself into a political martyr.
So, what now?
Anwar’s fractured opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), could close ranks and turn his incarceration to its advantage. This could mean an explosive phase for Malaysian politics at Najib’s expense and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. But closing ranks appears to be tough without Anwar to act as a bridge between internal factions. And if the PR fails to overcome its internal divisions, the opposition will find itself heading for demise.
The challenges are daunting: 1998 is not 2015. Anwar is older and his health is also an issue. There is also no clear alternative leader of Anwar’s stature, with his charisma and political acumen to pull the divided alliance together.
This leaves the opposition coalition with little choice but to fall back on Anwar’s appeal and leadership again despite the odds. This would buy more time for the opposition to sort out its leadership crisis and throw up a new generation of opposition leaders.
To this end, the surprising move by Anwar’s family to seek a royal pardon allows the PR to retain Anwar as leader of the opposition in parliament A core of younger leaders, who have emerged on the wings of Anwar’s reform movement, are stepping up to the plate. These younger leaders, which include his daughter, Nurul Izzah, Azmin Ali, Rafizi Ramli, Saifuddin Nasution, Nik Nadzmi and Tian Chua, are now set to play a more prominent role to redefine Malaysian politics post-Anwar. An unexpected development is the emergence of more of Anwar’s offspring to continue his struggle, such as Nurul Nuha and Nurul Hikmah. There are also more promising young leaders in the broader opposition coalition beyond Anwar’s own party.
Will Anwar’s jailing help Prime Minister Najib?
Anwar’s second jailing has obvious implications for Najib. If Anwar’s family fails to secure him a royal pardon, the charismatic opposition icon will, by law, lose his parliamentary seat and will no longer be a major factor in the political equation. He will miss the next general election. But the family petition for the pardon has automatically suspended Anwar’s disqualification, pending a decision by the King. This means PR will not be as leaderless to fight the next polls as initially thought.
If Anwar becomes a political martyr and the opposition alliance overcomes its division, he might potentially become a more potent threat to Najib. But at this point, the split within the PR — between the Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) — seems difficult though not impossible to reconcile.
Anwar’s political lifeline ironically may come from Najib’s own problems. As it is, Najib is already looking at a tough year ahead on both the political and economic fronts. He has entered 2015 under the clouds of three dramatic airplane disasters. He is probably the only Malaysian leader since independence to have come under such unprecedented misfortune.
Ominously, one of the worst floods to hit the country’s peninsular in a ‘mini tsunami’ ushered in 2015. A subsequent photograph of Najib playing golf with President Obama during a private visit in Hawaii during the floods didn’t help either.
Najib also took the rap for losing the popular vote in the last general election to the Anwar-led opposition. A new investment fund which he advises, 1Malaysia Development Berhad known as 1MDB, has been heavily criticised for amassing huge debts so soon after formation. The alarming debt size has drawn heavy fire from two UMNO stalwarts, Mahathir and former finance minister Daim Zainuddin. The 1MDB issue continues to burden Najib.
Economically, this could not have come at a worse time: plummeting global oil prices have hit Malaysia, an oil exporter, hard. This forced the government to downgrade GDP growth forecasts from 5–6 per cent to 4.5–5.5 per cent. But Najib shied away from declaring an emergency, stating ‘we are neither in a recession nor a crisis as experienced in 1997, 1998 and 2009’.
The drop in oil prices was not accompanied by a corresponding decline in the prices of consumer goods. This led to one UMNO minister accusing ‘Chinese traders’ of profiteering and calling on the majority Malay community to boycott Chinese businesses. There were even alarmist statements that certain parties had sabotaged the economy to profit from the falling national currency. This is probably the first time since the 1998 financial crisis that such talk has resurfaced, although it has been defused for now.
As he faces these challenges, Najib has to ensure that his ethnic-based ruling coalition remains stable. But a key partner, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), has broken into a public power feud, forcing Najib to step in. Another component party, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) has just recovered from its own power struggle. In the anchor party, UMNO, the Mahathir-led undercurrents against Najib’s leadership remain despite the re-jailing of Anwar.
Najib cannot afford any more upsets in 2015, especially as Malaysia will be under the spotlight as chair of ASEAN. Will Najib display sufficient political skill to ensure his survival as leader — even as his nemesis, Anwar, and the divided opposition struggle for their own political survival?
Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
An earlier version of this article first appeared here on RSIS.