Malaysians ‘in the mood’ for political change

He is the man many Malaysians love to hate. Once considered his nation’s political tour de force, Anwar Ibrahim has spent the greater part of the past two decades in jail, wrapped up in court proceedings and enduring what he calls a long-standing smear campaign – from being labelled a chauvinist and Zionist to facing accusations that he is homosexual, guilty of sodomy and anti-Muslim.

Now Anwar is fighting his last fight: to be Malaysia’s next prime minister, a battle for which he has been preparing for a very long time.

At speeches and rallies Anwar is vibrant, compelling, persuasive. In person he is slight, ageing and soft-spoken, sipping black tea with honey as he outlines why his opposition alliance expects to usurp the prime minister, Najib Razak, and the incumbent Barisan Nasional (National Front), which has governed Malaysia for nearly 60 years.

“The mood is there, the mood for change,” Anwar said from his office at the multistoreyed headquarters of his People’s Justice Party in central Kuala Lumpur. “I’m very optimistic that we will wrest control and make major inroads.”

Anwar has long been a contender to rule Malaysia, but his political career has suffered vertiginous highs and lows. The spectacular ascent that saw him grace the cover of Newsweek as Asian of the Year and become the heir apparent of then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad was met with an equally spectacular crash in 1998, when the two fell out and Anwar was imprisoned for six years on corruption and sodomy charges, claims he repeatedly dismissed as politically motivated.

Opposition coalition
Times have not been easy since his release in 2004. Despite leading an opposition coalition to a famous result in the 2008 general election, when it stole one-third of the parliamentary seats and five states from the National Front, Anwar soon found himself facing new sodomy charges, accusations that were only dismissed in January owing to lack of evidence.

But his movement is full of hope. Elections are expected to be called any time in the next nine months and even those who do not openly back Anwar often support what he stands for: relief from an autocratic and out-of-touch government they say has ruled Malaysia for too long.

In April many tens of thousands of Malaysians took to the nation’s streets to demand electoral reform at rallies organised by Bersih, an opposition-backed coalition of civil society groups whose name means “clean” in Malay.

According to political columnist Art Harun, Bersih has thrown “a massive spanner in the [government] works” as increasingly informed activists point to numerous corruption scandals and police brutality as proof that government reform is necessary.

But when it comes to voting, they will have to contend with a determined ruling party that has been accused of playing dirty to win.

“The electoral roll is our Achilles heel and their way of winning,” said Anwar’s 31-year-old daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, an opposition MP. “Before it was just small instances … now we’ve unearthed a whole pool of data.” She claimed that in her constituency alone she had 10 000 voters who suddenly “appeared” on electoral lists.

Anwar’s greatest task would be proving that he can actually instigate the change Malaysians have long been calling for, said Malaysia expert Bridget Welsh of Singapore Management University.

“Four months after Bersih there are two important issues: the management of the economy and who can manage the economy best, and who can offer more options in democratic governance. The third aspect is whether this election will be free and fair … so what we have is a situation where the integrity of the [electoral] process is as important as the process itself.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Kate Hodal
Kate Hodal
Writing and reporting on the @guardian's Global Development and Modern-Day Slavery desks. Former @guardian Southeast Asia correspondent.

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