By John R. Mallot – The Wall Street Journal 11th January 2012
The not guilty verdict handed down last Monday in the sodomy trial of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim made both sides, Prime Minister Najib Razak and the opposition, happy. Mr. Najib gets an immediate political boost by claiming a victory for the rule of law and an independent judiciary, while Mr. Anwar can focus on the election ahead. This good feeling, however, is likely to be short-lived. Serious challenges lie ahead.
The first test of the post-verdict era will be whether the government chooses to appeal the acquittal. Defense experts successfully demolished the government’s DNA evidence, but the judge said during the trial that Mr. Anwar’s accuser was credible and reliable. With parliamentary elections looming, the government might conclude that forcing Mr. Anwar back into the courtroom will distract and pull him away from the campaign trail. On the other hand, an appeal would be polarizing and cost the government the support of centrists and independents.
The second test will be whether the government implements key electoral reforms before elections are held. Mr. Najib’s government cracked down in July on Bersih 2.0, a coalition of organizations calling for free and fair elections. This demonstrated the ruling party’s fear that genuinely fair elections could cause them to lose power for the first time since 1957. However, after strong domestic and international criticism of its heavy-handed treatment of the marchers, the government backtracked and created a select parliamentary committee to propose election reforms. Among the proposals are using indelible ink to prevent voter fraud and allowing the opposition to have access to government-owned television and radio, which now act as propaganda outlets for the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
The trouble is that so far, none of the proposals have been carried out. The only thing worthy of note is a court decision earlier this month ruling that the one million Malaysians who reside overseas have no right to vote. Expatriate Malaysians, it should be noted, are generally believed to lean toward the opposition.
If UMNO fumbles electoral reform and squanders its newly earned goodwill, the opposition will get stronger. The growing pains and ideological differences that plagued the opposition coalition in years past have largely been overcome, and Mr. Anwar and his political associates express confidence that they could take power in a fair contest.
In contrast, Mr. Najib faces a constant uphill battle. Many of the economic and political reforms that he proposed were not implemented because of right-wing opposition from inside his party. He is regularly undercut in public by criticism from Malaysia’s very vocal former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and in private by some of his most senior cabinet officers.
The public sees corruption on the rise and feels that UMNO supporters increasingly believe making money from government contracts is business as usual. Many Malaysians now use the word “kleptocracy” to describe their ruling class. This perception further undermines Mr. Najib’s calls for reform, making it seem as if no UMNO leader wants to crack down on this abuse, given its importance to maintaining the support of their political base. This perception is compounded by the fact that Mr. Najib has remained largely silent on the latest scandal, in which one cabinet minister’s family allegedly used public funds, targeted to increase cattle production, to buy luxury condominiums in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
These weaknesses compound UMNO’s fear of losing power and increase the risk of over-reaction. The party will not go down without a fight, and neither will its supporters in the bureaucracy, media, and business worlds, who fear losing access to the financial gravy train. Because of the high stakes, those who benefit from corruption will make an all-out effort to keep the opposition from coming to power. A return to Mahathir-style strong-arm tactics should not be ruled out.
All this will make the coming election the most important in Malaysia’s history—and also its dirtiest. The international community needs to pay attention and hold Mr. Najib to his promise of political and electoral reform. Mr. Anwar’s acquittal is only the beginning of the country’s fight against political abuse and corruption.