Malaysia’s opposition in disarray as elections loom

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A hundred days is generally accepted to be a reasonable time after which to gauge the progress or performance of a new government or political leader. In the case of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia’s new premier, his first hundred days seem the blink of an eye, especially as the echo of his predecessor’s presence is still felt, and his first general elections, due to be held by May at the latest, are looming.

Much has been said about his first hundred days of office, which ended early last month, but the truth remains that nothing –” and no one –” has changed. Cabinet ministers, all from the Mahathir era, remain the same despite some cosmetic ‘cabinet reshuffling’. The reshuffle resulted in no heads rolling, not even of those known to be most corrupt, whose tenures have been tainted by evidence submitted by the once-independent Anti-Corruption Agency. Thus many regard such a reshuffle as merely an attempt by Abdullah to remind his ex-colleagues that he does have the right to move them around, and perhaps dismiss them if they go too far out of line.

Day by day Abdullah, seen as meek, lacking in charisma and repute, is trying to show that he is in charge. Early last month, he showed his fangs when he green-lighted the arrest of Eric Chia, a Malaysian-Chinese businessman and a friend of Mahathir’s, on allegations of embezzling RM74 million (US$19.5 million) from a state-owned steel company that collapsed a few years ago. Chia is implicated in the embezzlement of much larger sums (billions of dollars), but even the relatively paltry sum he is actually charged with embezzling is enough to create ripples in the cabinet. This is especially so because Mahathir’s modus operandi to keep his cabinet colleagues in check had been to make sure that he had a file on each in his closet. Now those files are in Abdullah’s hands.

A cabinet minister and another divisional leader of the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) have also been arrested in Abdullah’s self-declared ‘anti-corruption’ crackdown. His office has also announced that dozens of high-profile cases are being reopened. Whatever analysts and critics say, crackdowns are rare in Malaysia, even when the catch are small fry. Such actions will be popular among ordinary people, who grew used to high-level corruption during Mahathir’s rule. With general elections expected at any time, this move may well ensure a roaring comeback for the ruling National Front, after its losses in 1999 in the aftermath of the Anwar Ibrahim saga.

As for Anwar Ibrahim himself, it seems that more nails have been hammered into his political coffin. The lack of opposition unity (indeed their lack of leadership) has damaged his chance of being released. The National Justice Party (now renamed the People’s Justice Party, Keadilan), formed in the wake of the reformasi outburst in 1998 and led by his wife, Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, remains an infant in politics, despite a positive public response when it was formed in 1999. A number of its leaders, UMNO members who were in Anwar Ibrahim’s camp and who lost their jobs and business empires after his dramatic dismissal, have announced their return to the UMNO fold. Many supporters have lost confidence in the ‘opposition front’ formed as an alternative to the National Front, citing differences in agendas. The Islamic ideology of the Islamic Party (PAS) is resented by the overtly Chinese and anti-Islamic Democratic Action Party, and Keadilan’s rank and file can only watch as their leaders openly bicker and accuse each other. Recent reports have confirmed that many of its leaders were involved in secret talks with the government, and had offered to disband the party on condition of government positions for themselves and release for Anwar Ibrahim. The secret negotiations, which have not been denied by party leaders, were exposed by former party members, and risk creating deeper mistrust between Keadilan and PAS.

Keadilan’s main problem is the presence of former business cronies whose intention to free Anwar Ibrahim goes in tandem with their loss of livelihood. Many of them are former members of the Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), the youth organisation founded by Anwar Ibrahim, and had joined UMNO with him. Their commitment to change "from within" –” whether flawed or not –” was overshadowed by their vast business interests and opportunities from government contacts and contracts.

Despite the opposition’s present disarray, Abdullah’s main goal is to consolidate his position. Some analysts believe that, even without the present anti-crime drive, the voters may just give the ruling party the two thirds majority it has always enjoyed since Malaysia gained independence. But the anger generated by Mahathir’s vile allegations against Anwar Ibrahim still linger in people’s minds, and many, especially his supporters, had high hopes that Mahathir’s leaving the government would address the situation. Hence the secret –” and failed –” negotiations between UMNO and Keadilan leaders for their leader’s release.

The Keadilan leaders’ (read former UMNO and ABIM members’) hope, that Abdullah’s rule might open new avenues for Anwar Ibrahim, remains an illusion. Realpolitik and common sense suggest that releasing him would be a most unwise move for Abdullah. Yet, unlike Mahathir in his early days, when Mahathir had to apply some Islamic cosmetics to his government by bringing in Anwar Ibrahim, Abdullah feels no need of such moves. He is comfortable with his non-secular family background (his father was a founder-member of PAS) and feels this factor alone gives him a sufficiently Islamic image, better than Mahathir’s, even if it is not on a par with Anwar Ibrahim’s.

Since assuming office last November, Abdullah has pledged to be more open and said that he will tolerate dissent, thereby giving hope to many that the injustices against Anwar Ibrahim could be corrected, even if he could not be allowed back into politics. But Abdullah has no grassroots support within UMNO, and is an unelected party president, and therefore cannot afford to release Anwar Ibrahim until he has established his political footing.

This suggests one reason why Abdullah has left the judiciary in its present abysmal state. On January 21 an application to have Anwar Ibrahim released on bail, pending his appeal against his outrageous convictions in 1998-2000, was rejected. The bail application was one of two remaining legal avenues for him; he has been in jail since 1998.

With the opposition in disarray, the chances of their even retaining their present parliamentary seats seem bleak. The political landscape, especially in the Malay-Muslim majority areas, has also reverted to the pre-Anwar-saga era: a division of the territory between PAS and UMNO. PAS is set to retain its traditional strongholds on the east coast, while UMNO and allies dominate the rest. Armed with the media and an easily-rigged election system (‘phantom voters’ on the lists of electors, for instance), Abdullah looks set to repeat Mahathir’s landslide victory of 1981, in his first general elections after becoming premier. In those elections the opposition was reduced to almost nothing in parliament. In the coming elections, it is likely that Abdullah will achieve a similar triumph.

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