Posted: 30 Oct 2014 06:18 PM PDT
FOR 16 years Anwar Ibrahim, leader of Malaysia's opposition, has battled dodgy charges of sodomy and corruption designed to keep him from power. One way or another, a court hearing which began on October 28th looks like the end of the road. As The Economist went to press Mr Anwar was reaching the conclusion of his final appeal against a five-year prison sentence, imposed in March, for allegedly having sex with a male aide (sodomy is illegal in Malaysia). It leaves Pakatan Rakyat, his three-party coalition, on shaky ground.
Mr Anwar has been here before. He was once the rising star of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957. But a bust-up with Mahathir Mohamad—the prime minister for over two decades—saw him dumped from the party in 1998 and convicted of sodomy soon after. That conviction (though not another for corruption) was quashed in 2004, after Mr Anwar had spent more than five years in jail. He has since fashioned the first serious challenge to UMNO rule.
The latest case looks just as fishy as the first and began in 2008. The charges were dismissed in 2012, but in March an appeal court overturned Mr Anwar's acquittal. That came just weeks before a by-election that would probably have enabled Mr Anwar to become chief minister of Selangor, Malaysia's richest state and a prime spot from which to challenge Najib Razak, the prime minister, at general elections in 2018. In the months leading up to his appeal, prosecutors have hounded opposition politicians with charges of sedition and defamation. One of Mr Anwar's lawyers is among eight opposition politicians charged so far. So cynically political have sedition charges against Pakatan politicians appeared that Malaysia's usually docile lawyers took to the streets in protest.
Mr Anwar's conviction bars him from holding a political post for five years after his sentence is served. Going back to jail would thus probably end the political career of the 67-year-old, who as leader of Pakatan has enjoyed unprecedented success. Since 2008 the coalition has taken huge bites out of the dominance enjoyed by Barisan Nasional, the ruling alliance headed by UMNO. At the general election in 2013 Pakatan won just over half the popular vote. But under Malaysia's first-past-the-post—and heavily gerrymandered—electoral system, it got less than a majority of the seats in Parliament.
For all its achievements, Pakatan is a fractious alliance. It groups Mr Anwar's People's Justice Party (PKR) with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a devout Muslim outfit, and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a secular, ethnic-Chinese one. Until now Mr Anwar's charisma—and his legal travails—have kept these parties together despite their differences. But the divisions have widened.
For much of this year the coalition squabbled in unseemly fashion over who should fill the plum post in Selangor, earmarked for Mr Anwar before his conviction rendered him ineligible. PAS leaders torpedoed a plan to install Mr Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah, PKR's president and a respected politician in her own right. The imperious way in which PKR had proposed this dynasticism raised hackles throughout Pakatan, although some say the Islamists' main worry was the prospect that a woman—and a relatively liberal one to boot—might one day run the coalition. After a six-month stand-off and the intervention of the local sultan, the job of chief minister has gone to Azmin Ali, Ms Azizah's deputy. But the "childish infighting" has dented Pakatan's image among voters, says Bridget Welsh, an academic.
PAS, the smallest party in the opposition coalition, is also its weakest link. It is distracted by a struggle between progressive Muslims who predominate in its upper ranks and conservatives in its grass roots. The party is growing more illiberal, notably in a renewed push to toughen sharia law in the northern state of Kelantan, its heartland. Widespread criticism of the party's spoiling role in the Selangor crisis has pushed PAS's leader, Abdul Hadi Awang, closer to the conservatives, reckons Wan Saiful of IDEAS Malaysia, a think-tank. Government barons would love to lure PAS to their side.
Were he to remain free, Mr Anwar would continue to be the best person to ward off these threats. But he is no longer quite as crucial to the opposition as he once was. Though his coalition has made impressive gains, Mr Anwar has twice failed to lead it to outright victory. He can still raise a crowd. On October 27th Malaysia's oldest university appeared to cut the electricity to parts of its campus in order to discourage students from attending a rally in his defence. But his story is less compelling to young Malaysians than it was to those who heeded his first calls for change in 1998. Another jail sentence would make a martyr of him; it would also give his party's younger leaders a chance to shine.
In the PKR Mr Azmin is the most promising of them. He cut his teeth as Mr Anwar's private secretary during his years in government and has proven a loyal deputy. But the capable 50-year-old can readily move out from his mentor's shadow. Mr Azmin has greater experience than either Nurul Izzah Anwar, Mr Anwar's impressive daughter, or Rafizi Ramli, a party strategist somewhat tarnished by the Selangor debacle. Healing the wounds in that state would help convince voters that Mr Azmin could run the country competently.
As for the prime minister, his people like to push the line that he is a moderniser doing away with his party's thuggish ways. Certainly, it is hard to see how Mr Anwar's case will benefit Mr Najib even if he thinks him deserving of punishment. He will want to see the back of a case that is damaging the country's reputation abroad. But it all underscores how weak Mr Najib's position has become.
With a general election still four years away, the prime minister faces a threat from within his own party, notably from conservative factions close to Dr Mahathir, who still pulls strings from the wings. Whispers abound that an effort to unseat Mr Najib is imminent. As always, the prime minister touts policies intended to get Malaysia's economy motoring. He has never looked less capable of carrying them out.
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