Anwar Ibrahim’s incarceration and its implications

Najib Razak, Rosmah Mansor

The verdict is finally out. After months of speculations over Anwar Ibrahim’s fate, the Malaysian Federal Court has upheld the guilty verdict for the former deputy prime minister over the charge of sodomy. The verdict was particularly surprising for some within the Opposition circles who were confident that Anwar would be freed. The verdict has in theory sealed Anwar’s political fate given that he will be in prison for five years and be barred from assuming political office for another five years. This – at 77 – would render him too old to become the next leader of the country. The verdict is likely to have long term consequences for both Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and Malaysian politics.

Prosecuting Anwar Ibrahim

Anwar Ibrahim is a key figure in Malaysian politics. He will long be remembered for changing Malaysia’s political landscape. Dismissed as a spent force following his ouster from the ruling party – the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) – and subsequent jail term for sodomy and corruption, against all odds, he rose from the political doldrums to lead the PR to its best electoral performance in 2008. In 2013, the coalition bettered this performance by winning the popular votes.

Drawing a lesson from the old play book of former prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamed, the Malaysian government appealed against his earlier acquittal for sodomy. The charge was first brought against him by a former aide, Saiful Bukhari. The court proceedings were viewed by many as clearly biased against the defence team. For instance, the court allowed DNA evidence obtained illegally to be admitted in the case. The perception that Anwar has been unfairly treated by a corrupt government will once again galvanise support for the opposition leader especially amongst younger Malaysians. Hence, the guilty verdict has created a martyr out of Anwar and this could potentially be more threatening to the Malaysian government.

Can PR survive without Anwar?

While it was Anwar’s political savviness that initially brought the three opposition parties, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and People’s Justice Party (PKR) together, he has in recent times been the source of contention between the three parties. Both PAS and DAP leaders have registered their displeasure in what they deem as Anwar’s unilateral style of decision making. Matters came to a head when Anwar initiated the controversial change of Selangor’s chief minister. Both DAP and PAS leaders were incensed by the failure of Anwar to consult them on the issue. However, it was the conservative PAS leaders including party president, Hadi Awang who refused to support the candidature of Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as the new chief minister. This tension was further exacerbated when PAS recently announced that the party will be tabling a hudud bill in the Kelantan state assembly, a move clearly rejected by its PR partner, the DAP.

While some have argued that these developments are clear signs that the PR is at a brink of collapse, the recent court verdict might be the instrumental factor that could reverse this trend. First, the jailing of Anwar could unite the opposition in the face of adversity. In a sign of solidarity with Anwar, all PR leaders attended the PR’s presidential council meeting in February. This was the first time that Hadi attended the meeting in more than a year. Second, this development will force PAS leaders to rethink their political strategy. Even the most hard-core of the party’s supporters are likely to demand party leaders to focus on the bigger issue of justice and unseating the BN government in the next election knowing fully well that the political mileage that PAS is likely to gain. Most importantly, the younger leaders of PR who have had significant experience working within the PR framework are likely to come forth in charting the future direction of the party. Privately both PAS and DAP leaders admit that members of the two parties work closely at the grassroots level. In other words, the opposition alliance can still survive without Anwar. Perhaps with Anwar being out of the picture, the argument can even be made that the PR has a better chance of surviving since all parties must now coalesce around the new opposition leader.

There is little doubt that Azmin Ali will emerge as a key contender for the position of Opposition leader. Both the top leaders of PAS and DAP, Hadi Awang and Lim Kit Siang do not have a national appeal and are viewed as divisive figures. Wan Azizah, Anwar’s wife is likely to be rejected by PAS. The party had – earlier last year – rejected her candidature as chief minister of Selangor. This leaves Azmin as the most qualified candidate who is acceptable to both DAP and PAS. Like Anwar, Azmin possess the charisma and political savviness reflected in his current tenure as chief minister of Selangor.

Najib’s political survival

The recent verdict has also discredited the current administration and Prime Minister Najib Razak even further. Regardless of whether the Malaysian judiciary has been impartial in this case, the Malaysian and international public perception is that the case and final verdict was politically motivated. Anwar’s conviction has been blamed on UMNO and Najib himself. Public sympathy for Anwar might trigger a bigger swing away from UMNO and BN especially amongst the younger voters. Anwar himself predicted that his imprisonment will result in an increase in popular votes for the opposition.

Some UMNO conservatives have applauded the verdict. Zainuddin Maidin, former information minister and a staunch ally of Dr Mahathir, praised the judges for placing the integrity and sovereignty of the country’s laws above everything else. This does not mean that attacks against Najib have ceased from this group. In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, Dr Mahathir seems to have upped his ante noting that there is “something rotten in the state of Malaysia”. In essence, he is suggesting that the Malaysian political system is in a state of decay. The falling oil prices, plunging commodity prices and soaring household debt, suggests dire straits ahead for Malaysia and Malaysians. Increased public sympathy for Anwar, internal opposition and a looming economic crisis have left doubts as to whether Najib can survive as Prime Minister of Malaysia. Najib’s survival currently hinges on whether any senior UMNO leader is willing to mount a challenge against his leadership.

Anwar Ibrahim’s imprisonment has far ranging consequences not only for the opposition and Malaysians, but also for the government. It could prove to be the Najib and UMNO Achilles heel.

Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman is assistant professor and coordinator of the Malaysia Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).