Malaysia’s Opposition Leader Expects Clean Ouster of Najib’s Govt
Matthew Winkler & Ranjeetha Pakiam
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed for corruption and sodomy, predicted a smooth transition when his coalition ousts the government that has ruled Malaysia for 55 years in elections that may be held within weeks.
“The police has changed in the last few months,” Anwar, 65, said. “There’s hardly been any harassment from the police in all our programs. It’s a pure change.”
Anwar said the election will be close and will be won in the rural battleground states of Sabah and Sarawak. He said the ideological differences in his alliance won’t derail the success of the coalition in an hour-long interview at his People’s Justice Party headquarters in Petaling Jaya, outside Kuala Lumpur.
Prime Minister Najib Razak must dissolve parliament by April 28 and hold elections within 60 days.
A victory by the opposition, after the governing National Front had its narrowest win five years ago, would end more than five decades of unbroken rule in Malaysia. The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index has fallen 5.3 percent since reaching a record Jan. 7 on concern the ruling National Front may slip further at the ballot box, making it the only Asian benchmark stock index that has dropped this year.
Anwar, who said his imprisonment was politically motivated, considers his acquittal in 2012 on a second sodomy charge an indication that the judiciary will accept the outcome of the election, even if the opposition triumphs. He also said that the police didn’t obstruct an opposition rally in Kuala Lumpur last month and helped to “facilitate” it.
While the opposition hasn’t announced who would head a government if it wins, Anwar said “it is widely expected or assumed” it will be him.
Since his release from prison in 2004, Anwar has taken charge of an ideologically disparate and multi-ethnic opposition, pledging to roll back racial preferences for the ethnic Malay majority and trim the budget deficit if he wins power.
His People’s Alliance coalition, which includes the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party that wants to enforce Shariah law and the Democratic Action Party, won five of 13 states in the 2008 election before losing one a year later when three state assembly members defected.
“This is his last chance to be prime minister,” said James Chin, a professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University, referring to Anwar. “Part of it is age. The other part is that the alliance he holds is more of a marriage of convenience.”
Najib’s approval rating slid to 63 percent in December, the lowest level in 16 months, with support among ethnic Chinese voters, who make up about a quarter of Malaysia’s 29 million people, declining to 34 percent, the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research said last month. The survey of 1,018 voters conducted Dec. 15-28 on the country’s peninsula and published Jan. 10, showed 45 percent of respondents said they were “happy” with the government.
“An opposition win would be destabilizing for the market in the short term,” Alan Richardson, a Singapore-based fund manager who helps oversee about $110 billion for Samsung Asset Management, said by phone. “We haven’t had a history of political transition in Malaysia and there will be uncertainty.”
Anwar said he was confident his opposition alliance would make gains in Malaysia’s rural heartland of Sabah and Sarawak, which has long been the stronghold of the National Front. Najib’s coalition won 55 out of 71 seats when Sarawak held its state election in April 2011.
“In Sabah and Sarawak, we’ve never seen that level of support among indigenous tribes,” he said. “People do concede that there’s going to be a substantial change in Sabah and Sarawak, enough to alter the shift in balance of power nationwide.”
Anwar’s alliance holds 75 of 222 parliamentary seats, while the National Front, known as Barisan Nasional, holds 137 seats, according to the Malaysian parliament website. The election will be “very soon,” Bernama reported on Feb. 15, citing Najib.
Anwar backed mass demonstrations last year and in 2011 that were organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih, to demand changes to the country’s voting laws. At one of the gatherings in April, police arrested more than 500 people for defying a ban on street protests introduced by Najib’s government a month earlier.
The government has acceded to some of the demands. The Election Commission will use indelible ink for the first time to mark voters’ fingers to prevent double counting. Bersih’s call for a minimum 21-day campaign period hasn’t been met.
Najib, 59, passed a security law last year that reduced the period a detainee could be held without a judicial review. He also changed media legislation, making licenses permanent rather than subject to annual renewal.
Anwar said he is committed to dismantling “obsolete” policies that benefit ethnic Malays and indigenous people, and which were put in place by Najib’s father, Abdul Razak Hussein, who was Malaysia’s second prime minister. Since taking office in April 2009, Najib has peeled back benefits to ethnic Malays, easing rules on foreign investment and property purchases.
Ethnic Malays and indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak comprise more than half the country’s population, according to government data.
Najib will be counting on a series of election sweeteners, as well as economic growth that has exceeded 5 percent for six consecutive quarters, to sway voters. His proposed 251.6 billion ringgit ($81 billion) budget for this year includes cash handouts for low-income families and higher pensions for civil servants. Inflation, which rose 1.3 percent in January from a year earlier, is the lowest among major economies in Southeast Asia.
Anwar served as deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998 under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled Malaysia from 1981 to 2003. He was removed from office and tried in 1998 for abuse of power and having sex with a man, which is an offense in Malaysia and carries a maximum sentence of as much as 20 years in prison. He was jailed for almost six years before the sodomy charge was overturned.
Anwar was cleared of the second sodomy charge in January last year after the High Court ruled there was no evidence to corroborate the claims made by a former aide of a sexual encounter in 2008. The public prosecutor is seeking an appeal against the acquittal.