Ibrahim on the back foot

Last week’s massive rally in Malaysia to protest against fuel prices proved that opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim can draw the crowds in spite of fresh allegations that he has engaged in illegal sexual acts.

Ibrahim spent six years in prison after being convicted of similar sexual crimes and of corruption. He was released in 2004 when the sex conviction was overturned.

But cracks are showing in the hurriedly formed three-party People’s Alliance opposition coalition. Will the alliance last or will it break up under the stress of the radically different ideologies of its partners?

An incident at the anti-fuel price hike rally indicates the tensions within the alliance, which consists of the fundamentalist Pan­Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the secular Democratic Action Party (DAP), dominated by people of Chinese descent, and Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), which professes a liberal democratic ideology.

As part of the protest a rock band played some tunes that angered the puritanical Islamists and a punch-up broke out. The band was escorted out, the Islamists calmed down and the programme continued. However, the incident revealed tension within the alliance, which was cobbled together by Ibrahim after the March 8 general election that saw the ruling coalition give ground to opposition parties.

The parties of the opposition coalition — essentially a marriage of convenience — won 82 of the 222 seats in Parliament and five of the 13 states in the national federation. These results give the coalition a huge voice in a society dominated by the monolithic United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) since independence in 1957.

“The cracks are beginning to show and indicate how difficult it is to sustain an alliance when there is no common ideology and no common agenda,” said an academic with the National University of Malaysia who did not want to be named. “While the Islamists pull the alliance one side, the secularists are taking it in the opposite direction.

“Mr Anwar is caught in the middle trying to satisfy the two powerful political forces that each represent opposite sides of our society,” the academic said.

What unites the opposition is a wish to see the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi ousted. However, the parties want this for widely differing reasons.

The PAS’s ambition has always been to set up an Islamic theocracy, but the party was strategic enough to put this on the back burner to allow a united opposition against the government to form. But with the elections over, the Islamist agenda has resurfaced.

The PAS has openly demanded that the five opposition-ruled states give prominence to sharia laws. It also wants state government policies to be in tune with Islamic practices.

Malaysia is not Muslim enough for the PAS and the party constantly presses for measures such as an Islamic dress code, bans on gambling and drinking alcohol, and close regulation of Muslim behaviour.

Such demands bring it into conflict with the moderate Muslims who provide backbone support for Ibrahim’s PKR and do not wish to see the country sliding into Islam-driven conservatism, which they see as a dangerous and negative trend in Malaysia’s multi-ethnic polity.

To complicate matters further, the mainly Chinese-Malaysian DAP is highly suspicious of the PAS and its agenda, and since the March 8 general election some DAP leaders have questioned Ibrahim’s ambiguity on key issues like religious freedom and sharia.

Worst for the coalition are the sexual allegations levelled at Ibrahim. He has been accused of anal intercourse, which is illegal in Malaysia. This has roiled the opposition and clouded its chances of winning state power through engineering defections from ruling coalition ranks.

Ibrahim’s focus has shifted from toppling the government to surviving the new accusations. Although rejected as false by most Malaysians, the charges are serious: police investigations have widened to include nearly 36 witnesses, indicating that a major inquiry is under way.

Ibrahim has warned the government to drop the charges or face mass public protest. He has set off on a nationwide tour this week to defend himself before the people.

“The public mood is sympathetic to Anwar but people are also increasingly unhappy with the constant politicking surrounding Anwar,” the academic said. “People want the opposition to end politicking and start governing the five states won by them.”

Criticism is beginning to surface against the opposition in letters to newspapers, in blogs and in internet chat rooms.

One letter in the New Straits Times daily this week captured the growing public unease. “The opposition parties have failed to show signs that they know how to govern,” said writer CK Looi. “They are still campaigning, although the election ended on March 8.

“They spend their energy engineering defections and not exercising the mandate the people have given them,” he said, echoing the views of many Malaysians who disagree with Ibrahim’s defection strategy.

“The opposition does nothing but gripe, gripe and gripe, failing to realise that they are the government in five states,” he said. “They are wasting a golden opportunity to prove they can govern effectively and implement the reforms the country so urgently needs.”

Although weakened nationally and facing challenges within UMNO, Badawi has put reforms back on track after being returned for a second term, though with drastically reduced clout.

He has also announced a new broad-based anti-corruption commission to oversee the existing anti-corruption agency and an independent judicial appointment commissions to return credibility to Malaysia’s battered judiciary.

However, these and other measures have slowed down and face serious opposition from the remnants of the former regime that still populate Badawi’s cabinet, the large political establishment and the bureaucracy.

“Malaysia needs fundamental changes to the system, not a change of systems,” said Ramon Navaratnam, president of the Berlin-based Transparency International’s Malaysia chapter.

“Reforms are badly needed and Abdullah [Badawi] is giving it priority but the pace is agonisingly slow,” he told IPS in an interview. “He must speed up the pace, set deadlines to achieve reforms and put credible individuals in charge of the reformed institutions like the police and the judiciary.”– IPS

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