Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Malaysian Government on brink as Anwar Ibrahim poised for comeback

Malaysian Government on brink as Anwar Ibrahim poised for comeback
17 Sept, 2008


(Samsul Said/Reuters)

If his unprecedented game of brinkmanship pays off, Ibrahim Anwar, pictured here with his wife, will be poised for one of Asia’s most spectacular political comebacks

Leo Lewis in Kuala Lumpur, Times Online

Malaysia is lurching to the brink of perhaps its most dramatic political and social upheaval in 50 years as the country’s main opposition bloc claimed it was now within a whisker of seizing control of the Government.

The opposition parties, corralled together under the populist leadership of Anwar Ibrahim, said that they have now secured sufficient defections from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling bloc to destroy the parliamentary majority it has commanded without serious challenge since the late 1950s.

If his unprecedented game of brinkmanship pays off, Mr Anwar will be poised for one of Asia’s most spectacular political comebacks: from a prison sentence for corruption, an overturned sodomy conviction, and a ban on holding public office to a landslide by-election victory earlier in the summer and, possibly, leadership of a vibrant South East Asian economy.

Mr Anwar said that he had formally demanded a meeting with Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to give the much-beleaguered Malaysian Prime Minister “the chance to exit gracefully.” Depending on the response he receives — and it seems unlikely that the Prime Minister can postpone the meeting indefinitely — Mr Anwar would almost certainly launch no-confidence proceedings against Mr Abdullah to formalise the BN’s demise.

At a brief press conference, Mr Anwar declared that he had secured the support of at least 31 MPs who were currently part of the ruling coalition. Once they have crossed the floor, he said, the opposition would now control a majority and would be in a position to “regain the country’s dignity”.

I am confident that the Barisan government will continue to rule,” said Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak in response to the claims.“This is the politics of deception, deployed to deceive, and clearly it has not become a reality”.

The declaration by Mr Anwar came on the afternoon of Malaysia’s national day — a symbolic moment picked for maximum impact. The opposition leader has long claimed that the day would herald the fall of both the BN’s rule and Prime Minister Abdullah.

Opposition supporters have spent recent weeks fixing the “magic date” of September 16 in the minds of ordinary Malaysians and the chant “9-16” echoed across the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on Monday night as Mr Anwar addressed huge crowds gathered in a football stadium.

As Mr Anwar’s National Day deadline has loomed, the BN’s attempts to thwart the opposition have shifted from the farcical to the sinister. Apart from the sudden revival of allegations that Mr Anwar sexually abused a male aide in the 1990s, 50 ruling bloc MPs who might have been persuaded to defect were mysteriously sent off to Taiwan on a sudden — but apparently critical — “study tour” from which many have not yet returned.

Last Friday an opposition politician, a well-known blogger and a journalist for the biggest Chinese newspaper in Malaysia were arrested under much criticised internal security laws - a legacy of British colonial rule which allows indefinite detention without trial. The arrests provoked rage from within Mr Abdullah’s own cabinet and triggered the resignation of the justice minister, who himself threatened to defect to the opposition.

Recent years have seen the BN’s stranglehold on power growing visibly tired and weak. The coalition was originally designed to accommodate the broad social rifts between the three main ethnic groups — the Malay majority, the Chinese and the Indians. But many Malaysians — especially ethnic Chinese and Indians — now condemn the government for what they allege is long-term racial discrimination and see the opposition as a better guarantor of equality and reform.

The potentially momentous shift comes in the wake of a general election earlier this year which fundamentally upset the old power structures of Malaysia. A huge voter exodus from the BN parties to the opposition alliance robbed the ruling bloc of what had previously seemed a watertight two thirds parliamentary majority. Mr Anwar’s coalition currently controls 82 of the 222 parliamentary seats.

Most significantly, voters at the March election engaged in “defections” across ethnic and religious lines in the widespread attempt to oust the BN. Where previously Chinese Malaysians would not have considered voting for the local Indian candidate, they did so in March when that candidate stood the strongest chance of victory over the incumbent MP from the ruling bloc.

Mr Anwar yesterday called for a peaceful transition of power — a move seen by many as an attempt to scotch the sort of street-level activism that would provide the government with an excuse to crack down on opposition supporters.

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