By Yong Yen Nie
In an unexpected twist of events, Anwar Ibrahim, a leading opposition leader in Malaysia, was today acquitted from the sodomy charges pressed against him three years ago. High Court Judge Mohd Zabidin Mohd Diah ruled that the court was reluctant to convict Anwar of sodomizing his former aide Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan because of a lack of DNA evidence.
“Without that, the court is reluctant to convict the accused based on the evidence of SP1,” he was quoted as saying while delivering the judgment.
Anwar, the adviser-leader of Pakatan Rakyat, a coalition of three opposition parties – came out of the courts looking triumphant, as thousands of supporters greeted him with cheers and applause. Supporters of Anwar had gathered in the Jalan Duta Courts Complex – where Anwar’s verdict was to be delivered.
In an unprecedented move by the government, it circlulated an email to the media on the acquittal of Anwar with comments by the Malaysian Information, Communications and Culture Minister Dr Rais Yatim.
“Malaysia has an independent judiciary and this verdict proves that the government does not hold sway over judges’ decisions. The current wave of bold democratic reforms introduced by Prime Minister Najib Razak will help extend this transparency to all areas of Malaysian life,” he said.
While political analysts said the acquittal of Anwar came as a ‘surprise’, they believed that this development would provide moral victory for both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat, which is crucial at a time when the country’s 13th general elections are expected to be held soon.
“The acquittal is likely to boost Najib’s reputation. With Anwar being set free, Najib can claim that his reform programs (notably the Government Transformation Program) is actually working,” said Shaun Levine, Asia analyst for Eurasia Group, a political advisory firm based in Washington DC.
Choong Pui Yee, research analyst of S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore said the acquittal verdict would also boost Pakatan Rakyat’s morale, allowing their road campaigns in the following months to be filled with increased momentum.
“On the other hand, Barisan Nasional will hail that Malaysia has a fair and just judiciary and enhance Najib’s image as reformed leader. This situation will be the harbinger for Malaysian politics, as the euphoria of perceived victory will continue,” she said.
Anwar, formerly Finance Minister and a member of United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – the dominant political party behind Barisan Nasional – spent six years in jail a decade ago, after he was convicted of sodomy charges when Mahathir Mohamad was Prime Minister.
He returned to the political stage and led Parti Keadilan Rakyat in 2008 – a political party set up by his wife Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail – after his ban from politics expired.
Shortly after Anwar’s acquittal, he said on his Twitter feed that the “corrupt” government – implying the government led by Barisan Nasional – will be toppled from its pedestals of power.
“The opposition is claiming vindication. Anwar will be bolder in pushing to end ethno-nationalist politics in the country, while the Prime Minister will face higher expectations by citizens to be a liberal leader,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist and lecturer at the Monash University Malaysia Campus.
However, with the acquittal of Anwar and the trial behind Malaysians now, NTU’s Choong believes that Pakatan Rakyat will no longer get as much sympathy votes as previously thought, especially if Anwar was convicted.
“The nation has already moved away from focusing on Anwar. The recent rallies and protests are indicators that Malaysia are championing issues larger than Anwar’s sodomy trial,” she said.
Monash’s Wong said the nation’s reactions to the country’s political system have also changed over the years, resulting in a more “politically-activated” society.
“In 1998, (when Anwar was first convicted of sodomy charges), pro-establishment Malaysians were also shocked by the systems that failed them,” he said.
“Many have since risen to oppose authoritarianism under the Mahathir. Those that had been teens back then are in their twenties and thirties today. After the March 8 political tsunami and July 9 Bersih rally, Malaysians are much more active in politics,” he said.
Eurasia’s Levine said it is likely that the political debate in Malaysia will focus on the economy and seat allocations for the upcoming elections. “Najib is well aware that global slowdown and the subsequent decline in demand for Malaysian exports, will sooner or later, have an effect on Malaysia’s economic growth. He will need to call for elections before this can happen,” he said.
Levine added that with Anwar’s attention focused on his trial in the past, and he will need to quickly rectify issues within the coalition.
“The election will likely come down to who can mobilize their core supporters. With the opposition being largely informal and with the parties each having their own agendas- unlike in Barisan Nasional where UMNO dominates- it could be difficult for the opposition to rally their supporters.
“If Najib does call for elections sooner, Anwar may be short of time to unify the opposition,” he said.