Malaysia’s Opposition Leader Stepping Down?

Although Anwar Ibrahim is unlikely to win the next election, he’ll likely remain a force in the country’s political scene.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has warned Malaysia’s middle classes to support his bid for the top job in the next election or risk losing him altogether. Anwar, an astute and hardened politician, realizes that if he can’t defeat the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition this time around then it will be time to pass the baton.

“If we don’t get the mandate, then we should give space for the second-liners in leadership,” he said during an online forum broadcast on YouTube.

Anwar served as United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – the lead party in the current governing coalition – deputy prime minister until 1998 when he had a falling out with the then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and was imprisoned for corruption and sodomy. He was released from jail in 2004, however, after the sodomy conviction was overturned and quickly returned to Parliament.

Despite retiring in 2003 after 22 years-in-power, Mahathir has remained Anwar’s nemesis. This rivalry is partly fueled by Mahathir’s son, Murhkriz, entering politics as a Member of Parliament. Mahathir is widely believed to be steering his son towards the prime minister’s job.

Anwar was again acquitted of sodomy charges in January amid claims that UMNO’s old guard, who have ruled the country since independence in 1957, were using the legal system to carry out a campaign to smear and silence the country’s loudest and most popular opposition voice. Sodomy is illegal in the country and if convicted Anwar could have faced up to 20 years in prison.

After being acquitted on that charge, Anwar was again arrested in May for taking part in an illegal rally that was attended by tens of thousands of people who demanded electoral reforms. 

A guilty verdict would prevent him from contesting the next election, which is scheduled for March 2013. Malay laws bars people with a conviction from entering politics for five years after their sentence is served.

Anwar’s chances of unseating the incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak remain remote despite the ruling party recording its worst ever electoral performance in 2008.

Back then UMNO lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament and with it, its cherished ability to rework the country’s constitution whenever it suited party elders, to the irritation of the Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities and non-Muslim religious groups.

However, generous budget handouts, a resilient economy boosted by reforms, the repeal of widely condemned laws limiting freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and due process have greatly improved Najib’s standing.

Anwar’s task is therefore formidable and his retirement probable. Even so, he is unlikely to disappear entirely from Malaysia’s often brutal political scene.

Among those waiting to take up Anwar’s mantle is his daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, who remains popular in her own right. She performed well at the 2008 elections and later was elected as one of the Vice Presidents of her father’s Parti Keadilan Rakya (PKR) party.

PKR sources say her ascendancy is by no means guaranteed, however, as others covet the top position within the party.