By Yong Yen Nie
The mood and direction leading to Malaysia’s next general elections may be as well be determined, strangely, by the outcome of a High court case involving prominent opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
All eyes will be on the verdict of Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy charges this January 9, as the high-profile court case, which has been running for the past three years now, comes to a close. Anwar faces imprisonment of up to 20 years if he is convicted of the charges, effectively ending his political career behind bars.
Anwar has repeatedly denied that he committed the sex crimes that he was charged for, and had been pretty successful in portraying himself in the international media as victim to ruthless politics in Malaysia. This seems to put his political rivals in the form of the Barisan Nasional, in a tricky position.
Should Anwar face the harshest end of the punishment, voters believing that the courts have been fixed may swing their votes to the opposition, known as the Pakatan Rakyat – a coalition of three opposition parties. But, acquitting him would also put Barisan Nasional in a bad light. Either way, Anwar will still be seen as a sacrificial lamb and that will somehow put his political party on stronger footing from sympathy votes.
Although Anwar’s political career may face prospects of an end (he is after all already 64 years old), he is seen to have taken every opportunity to gain political mileage for his political party and his moves are even more aggressive in recent weeks. The former Minister of Finance during Mahathir’s era in the 1990s has said that the party will live on, and new faces will emerge for the upcoming elections even if he goes to jail.
In that respect, Anwar is seen to be playing his cards rather well. Perhaps, he too, realizes that the nation has grown tired of this cat-and-mouse game, and his popularity is also waning. Unlike the Reformasi movement in 1998, Anwar’s support seems to be dwindling in numbers, as citizens take more interest in nation-building issues and cleaning up the country’s electoral process. Although his supporters have planned to stage a huge protest walk this January 9, it is not expected to draw such strong crowds as the recent BERSIH 2.0 rally.
The only way to reinstate confidence in Pakatan Rakyat, especially his own party- Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which is seen as personality-driven – is to bring out the new faces and young blood into the political arena.
At the other end, Prime Minister Najib Razak also has to calculate his costs in calling for general elections within the next few months this year. He now has two window periods to renew his mandate – between March and April, and between May and June.
There are several good reasons why Najib has to call for the elections within the next few months. A big part of it has to do with Malaysia’s economy. As the global economy faces renewed uncertainties, Malaysia, being reliant on external trade and struggling to be competitive compared with its neighboring countries, may not see illustrious growth over the next few years. The last thing Najib wants is to have the opposition point fingers at him for being unable to spruce up the economy.
Secondly, Najib also needs to renew his mandate in order for him to continue delivering the goals outlined under the New Economic Model which he launched in 2010. The longer Najib waits, the more risks he faces in convincing the nation that he would be able to deliver his promises.
But, he would have to balance these considerations with the reactions to Anwar’s verdict this coming Jan 9. Following a dent in his reputation from the BERSIH 2.0 rally, Najib has worked hard in trying to restore his good image among the people by portraying himself as being in the forefront of human rights in Malaysia – by abolishing the draconian Internal Security Act in September last year.
He wouldn’t want to be seen as responsible for putting Anwar behind bars, which would again subject him to scrutiny for human rights’ violation by the foreign media, thus, giving the opposition yet another form of infantry to discredit him.