On February 10, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was imprisoned on charges of sodomy, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. This is the third time he will be imprisoned for politically motivated reasons. As a result, the long-entrenched National Front is left, once again, with no opposition.
Since Malaysia became independent in 1957 the National Front (BN), the longest ruling coalition in the democratic world, has never been unseated. Although in the last elections it lost the majority vote for the first time—the opposition won 52 percent of the vote— it still managed to secure 60 percent of the seats in the parliament. Critics claimed the results as evidence of Malaysia’s rigged democracy. Anwar’s incarceration is yet another example.
While homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia, very few are prosecuted for it. Considering the timeliness of his arrests, the charges seem political fabrications designed to neutralize the opposition.
This breach of the separation of powers and rule of law is dangerous precedent for Malaysia’s already weak democracy. In its last report, Freedom House ranked the country’s democracy in a downward trend, due to electoral fraud, lack of freedom of speech and systematically blocking political opponents from gaining power.
Anwar Ibrahim is the charismatic leader that brought together the three main opposition groups to challenge the National Front (BN). The Pakatan Rakyat coalition includes Anwar’s own party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which represents a mix of ethnicities and religions; the liberal and mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP); and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), appealing to ethnic Malays.
Once former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s deputy, Anwar was first arrested for sodomy charges in 1998 after tensions between the two men arose. After six years in jail, his conviction was revoked; he was freed and he began his career as leader of the opposition movement. After his coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, gained a third of the seats in parliament in 2008, he was again accused of sodomy. He was tried, found guilty, and served another four years in prison. In 2012 the High Court acquitted him of the charges for lack of evidence. Now, after a government appeal, this same court has upheld his conviction and put him back in jail.
A leaderless opposition
Regardless of the legality of Anwar’s trial, both the international community and citizens of Malaysia view it as a dirty political move, and an abuse of power. In a statement released on the day of the court ruling, Anwar said the charges were a “complete fabrication—coming from a political conspiracy to stop my political career.”
Prime Minister Mohb Najib is perceived as deliberately neutralizing the opposition party by removing the only other viable leader in a country that has never experienced a transfer of power between opposing parties. Now the 67-year-old politician is in jail with a five-year sentence followed by a five-year ban from political office. He will be 77 before he can run again, which means he will be too old to become prime minister. Najib now has a leaderless opposition and, if no one else steps up, his reelection in 2018 will go unchallenged.
But some Malaysian experts argue it could also be a new opportunity for the opposition. Anwar’s incarceration might now turn him into a martyr for political injustice; a symbol that could alleviate the tensions and disputes between the coalition parties. Malaysian politics expert, Dr. Mohamed Nawab Osman, described Anwar as “the source of contention between the three parties (in the coalition).” Moreover, “both PAS and DAP know fully well that they will be blamed for causing the collapse of the Opposition coalition if they leave it,” said Osman. If the coalition is to survive, they will have to support a new leader; an opportunity that may in fact result in a stronger coalition.
But Anwar has been imprisoned for more than a month and no clear leader has emerged. Most analysts agree that PKR deputy president, Azmin Ali, is the only candidate that can win support from the three parties. But according to Nawad, Azmin’s problem lies in his own party; senior members see him “as Mahatir’s mole in PKR.”
Najib’s diminishing legitimacy
Even as the opposition remains undecided, Najib’s legitimacy as prime minister is suffering. He was accused of electoral fraud in 2013, and he’s been using the 1948 Sedition Act to repress activists’ and opposition voices. More recently, Nurul Izzah Anwar, member of the parliament and Anwar’s daughter, was arrested for criticizing her father’s imprisonment.
Under the Sedition Act, the BN has a powerful tool to silence political opposition and community activists. “Every Sedition arrest of an opposition political leader is another step towards the destruction of rights-respecting democracy in Malaysia,” said Phil Robertson, Human Right Watch’s deputy Asia director. The law, passed in 1948 by the British, is a remnant of colonial rule. Although Najib promised to repeal it during his electoral campaign in 2013, he reneged on his pledge once he won office. Indeed, in the past months, more than twelve activists have been arrested on sedition charges.
Najib’s support has traditionally come from economic policies. After the 2013 elections and to calm down protests about a fraudulent electoral process, the government promised populist economic measures to ameliorate living conditions for the poor and middle class—such as 1,200 Malaysian ringgit ($324) cash handouts and improved transportation, education and health care. But soaring household debt (146 percent of the country’s GDP), the implementation of a contentious goods and services tax, and the fall of oil prices might leave the prime minister without these political sweeteners and actually energize grassroots support for the opposition.
There’s no doubt the imprisonment of Anwar will have lasting consequences on the Malaysian political arena. It is unclear whether the opposition will rebound, but grassroots support will increase against the National Front and its hegemonic control of the country. As activists continue to be arrested, freedom of speech curtailed, and corruption scandals revealed, the opposition has the opportunity to regroup, tap grassroots, and make a play for the top office. In the 2018, the National Front might be unseated for the first time in Malaysia’s history.
Mireia is the Editor-in-Chief at JPI. She’s a Fulbright scholar pursuing an M.A. in International Relations and Journalism at New York University.