Wall Streeet Journal: Anwar’s trial could strengthen opposition

PUTRAJAYA, July 7 — Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is due to go on trial tomorrow, in a proceeding that could reinforce his political support, some political analysts say.

Anwar faces sodomy charges. His first sodomy trial, in 1998, ended in conviction and imprisonment, setting back Malaysia’s nascent opposition movement several years. This time, Anwar’s allies have grown into a significant political force and are better equipped to survive.

If Anwar is found guilty and imprisoned, some analysts say it could strengthen the opposition.

James Chin, a political-science professor at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University, says “Anwar could emerge as a martyr for the opposition,” strengthening the movement’s hand in the next general elections, which must be held by 2013.  The 61-year-old Anwar, who was elected to Parliament last year, denies the past and current sodomy allegations, saying the charges were fabricated by political enemies to destroy his reputation. Anwar didn’t specify whom he suspected was behind the charges.

Anwar faces his second trial after a 23-year-old former volunteer in his office, Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan, last year accused Anwar of sodomising him.

Members of Anwar’s defence team say they have obtained medical records stating that Saiful was examined and found not to have been sodomised.

Saiful couldn’t be reached to comment.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has denied having anything to do with the latest charges against  Anwar.

In 1998, Mahathir Mohamad, then prime minister, dismissed Anwar from his posts as deputy prime minister and finance minister for challenging Malaysia’s economic policies at the height of Asia’s financial crisis. Two years later, Anwar was convicted of sodomising two male aides. He was jailed until 2004, when his conviction was overturned.

Mahathir has repeatedly denied that he had anything to do with the earlier allegations against Anwar.

Anwar has become the linchpin of a strengthening opposition alliance that last year broke the ruling National Front’s two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time in decades.

Few Malaysians say they believe the charges against Anwar. In a national survey conducted last year by a Malaysian polling institute after his arrest in July only 11 per cent of respondents said they thought there was any credibility to the allegations against Anwar.

In recent weeks, Najib has tried to stake out his credentials as a reformer, to revive the economy and win voters from Anwar’s alliance.

With Malaysia’s economy facing its steepest contraction this year since the Asian crisis of 1998, Najib has opened up large areas of the Malaysian economy to foreign investment by rolling back race-based affirmative-action policies designed to give a boost to the majority ethnic-Malay population.

Among other measures, the amount of equity to be reserved for ethnic-Malay investors at initial public offerings was lowered to 12.5 per cent from 30 per cent.

Many economists hailed the moves as a step in the right direction to help Malaysia become more competitive with neighbours such as Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and China at a time when foreign investment around the world is declining.

Now Najib’s reforms risk being overshadowed by the Anwar trial. A number of political analysts point to widespread popular suspicion that the authorities orchestrated the allegations against Anwar to stop him from taking power in parliament.

The US and Amnesty International have expressed worries about the proceedings against Anwar, with the State Department last year stating that it had “serious concern” about the impartial rule of law in Malaysia.

While fighting his legal battle, Anwar will have to keep his unwieldy opposition alliance together. The alliance comprises a hard-line Islamist party, a secularly, largely ethnic-Chinese party, and Anwar’s own multiracial Parti Keadilan Rakyat. — Wall Street Journal


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