Can Malaysian democracy thrive without Anwar?

Does democracy in Malaysia really depend on Anwar Ibrahim?

If it does, Malaysia’s 30 million people are in trouble. Anwar is back in jail: at least five years’ imprisonment, and another five years’ ban from political activity after that. He says he doesn’t care: “Whether it’s five years or ten it doesn’t matter to me anymore. They can give me twenty years. I don’t give a damn.”

But of course he cares. By the time he’s free to resume his role as opposition leader, he’ll be at least 77. The People’s Alliance, the three-party opposition coalition that he created, can’t afford to wait 10 years for him to be free. The real question is whether they can stay together without him as leader.

Malaysia is formally a democracy, but the same coalition of parties, the National Front, has won every election since 1957. In the 2008 and 2013 elections, however, Anwar’s coalition began to cut seriously into the National Front vote. Indeed, in 2013 the People’s Alliance actually got a majority of the votes cast, although the ruling coalition still won more seats in parliament.

But on Monday the Federal Court ruled that Anwar was guilty on a charge of sodomy (which is illegal in this Muslim-majority country) and sent him to jail. He had previously been acquitted of the charge, and many people in Malaysia suspect that the prosecutor appealed the case to move it up into the superior courts, which are more open to political influence than the lower courts.

In other words, they’re getting him out of the way.

The first time Anwar was charged with sodomy was in 1998, less than a month after he was fired as deputy prime minister. He had risen to the country’s second highest political post with startling speed thanks to the support of long-ruling Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, but then he fell out with Mahathir (according to his own account) because of the latter’s lavish use of public funds to bail out the failing businesses of his children and cronies.

In any case, it was certainly in the ruling party’s interest to silence him. No need to kill him, though; jail would keep him just as quiet. Many Malaysians believed from the start that the sodomy charge was politically motivated.

Anwar was convicted (on extremely contradictory evidence), and sentenced to nine years in prison. But he was released in only five years, after the Court of Appeal overturned his conviction in 2004. He immediately began trying to unite the opposition parties and create a coalition capable of challenging the National Front government that he had once served.

The People’s Alliance was successful enough in the 2008 election to frighten the government, and by the strangest coincidence a second charge of sodomy was brought against Anwar only a couple of months later. Once again the “evidence” was flimsy and contradictory, and on this occasion the man who claimed to have been “seduced” had actually met with Prime Minister Najib Razak (of the National Front) two days before he laid the charges.

The second sodomy case lasted four years, but Anwar was acquitted in 2012 on the grounds (as the judge said) that “The court is always reluctant to convict on sexual offenses without corroborative evidence.” But the prosecutor immediately appealed the verdict, and last Monday Anwar was found guilty again.

The Federal Court judge said that the evidence against him was “overwhelming,” although it was exactly the same evidence that the lower court judge had dismissed as tainted and unreliable. Anwar is back in jail, and everybody in Malaysia is wondering what this will do to the hitherto unstoppable rise of the People’s Alliance.

The People’s Alliance is a curious coalition of two secular parties that want to end the system that makes invidious distinctions between citizens who belong to different ethnic and religious groups, and an Islamist party that wants to create an “Islamic state” in a country where only 60 percent of the population is Muslim. Anwar managed to hold these parties together, but the government clearly believes that without him they will fall apart.

Barely half of the people in Malaysia are actually Malays. Most of the rest are descended from Chinese and Indian immigrants who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the non-Malay population is doing much better economically than the original population. Most of the non-Malays are also non-Muslim, so the Malay population feels both exploited and threatened.

Ever since the horrendous race riots in 1969, therefore, the political system has been skewed to give Malays special advantages in education, government jobs, and various other areas. That naturally creates other resentments and other problems, and the People’s Alliance (or at least most of it) wants to end those special privileges. But doing that would be both tricky and risky.

If the People’s Alliance does not hold together without Anwar Ibrahim, all chance of ending the National Front’s seemingly perpetual rule will be lost. With it would be lost all hope of moving this complex country beyond the ethnic and sectarian divisions that have allowed the National Front to rack up thirteen consecutive election victories.

Nevertheless, that may be what happens. In the real world, cunning and ruthlessness often beat idealism and enthusiasm.

Based in London, Gwynne Dyer, is an independent Canadian journalist, syndicated columnist and military historian.

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