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Will Anwar Ibrahim Verdict Energize, or Split, Malaysia’s Opposition?

Previous prison term elevated the former Finance minister into the biggest rival to Prime Minister Najib Razak. Is history about to repeat itself?

When Malaysian authorities imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim in 1999 over what was widely seen as trumped-up allegations of corruption and sodomy, the prosecution ended up turning the former Finance minister into the country’s most prominent opposition leader since Malaysian independence. After a Malaysian court earlier this month ordered Anwar jailed for five years over another sodomy conviction, Malaysians are wondering whether history will repeat itself.

“Anwar will still play a political role — every day he is in prison he plays a role,” says Bridget Welsh, a senior research associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University and noted author of books on Malaysian politics. The prison sentence could give the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR), or People’s Alliance, a martyr figure to rally around, she adds.

Human rights groups criticized the latest court ruling as a politically motivated effort to derail a politician who posed the greatest threat to the rule of Prime Minister Najib Razak and his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. A number of foreign governments also questioned the verdict. A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said Anwar’s trial “raised serious concerns regarding the rule of law and the independence of the courts.”

On February 10 the Federal Court of Malaysia, the country’s highest court, upheld a lower-court ruling convicting Anwar of sodomy (which is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia) and ordered him to begin serving his sentence. Anwar, 67, had denied the charges, which date back to 2008, and the country’s High Court acquitted him in 2012, saying DNA evidence used in the case had been compromised, but an Appeals Court overturned the acquittal in 2013.

The sentencing was the latest in a series of legal decisions that have dogged Anwar since he fell out with former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad over Malaysia’s response to the Asian financial crisis. Anwar, then deputy prime minister and Finance minister, imposed austerity measures after the crisis erupted in 1997 and sought to maintain the country’s access to international capital markets. Mahathir blamed speculators for Malaysia’s woes, though. In September 1998 he fired Anwar and imposed capital controls, prompting his understudy to launch a reformasi movement and work to form an opposition coalition. Shortly afterward, Anwar was arrested on allegations of sexual misconduct, and was later sent to prison. He was released in 2004 when the Malaysian Supreme Court overturned his sodomy conviction.

Government officials defended the court ruling. “One must appreciate we have a legal system that is based on the U.K. system,” Abdul Wahid Omar, minister in charge of economic planning in the office of Prime Minister Najib, told Institutional Investor in an interview in Kuala Lumpur. “We have an independent judiciary, and at end of the day we should respect the decision of the court.”

The People’s Alliance is made up of three parties — the People’s Justice Party, the Democratic Action Party and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (known by its Malaysian acronym, PAS) ­— with supporters ranging from conservative Islamic clerics to members of the country’s ethnic Chinese business community. The alliance won nearly 51 percent of the popular vote in the 2013 election but only 88 of the 222 seats in parliament, which is heavily weighted toward rural districts dominated by the ruling BN coalition. The alliance also controls the administrations of four of the nation’s 13 states.

Some Anwar supporters bemoaned infighting within the alliance over the leadership succession after Anwar’s imprisonment. Zaid Ibrahim, a vocal opposition figure who once served as minister in charge of Legal Affairs under Najib’s predecessor, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, criticized the alliance, and the Islamist PAS party in particular, for failing to support their leader. PAS has been calling for more legislation espousing “Islamic values,” a stance that is strongly opposed by the Democratic Action Party, which is dominated by ethnic Chinese. “Don’t worry, Anwar, your Islamist friends will not help you, but others in the country will,” Zaid wrote in a Twitter posting after the court verdict.

But author Welsh believes the succession process could strengthen unity in the alliance. “We see an opportunity for the younger generation of new leaders to emerge,” she says. “There remains considerable pressure for the opposition to provide a viable alternative for the electorate, and this serves to push PR for some cooperation. It is not robust, but it remains the strongest multiethnic coalition in the country, more than the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, as there is no longer any meaningful representation of minorities within it. The changes will be difficult, and there will likely be open spats and separations, but these signal a different post-Anwar era.”

Najib meanwhile has come under criticism from Mahathir, who remains a powerful figure behind the scenes. The former prime minister has expressed frustration at what he claims is a lack of political leadership in the United Malays National Organization, the dominant party in the BN and one that has ruled Malaysia since it gained independence from the U.K. in 1957. The party relies heavily on support from ethnic Malays and is losing support from the wealthy ethnic Chinese and Indian communities that make up more than 35 percent of the nation’s population of 30 million.

“Najib was effectively called on to resign by Dr. Mahathir last week,” says Welsh, citing a recent blog posting by Mahathir that criticized some of the prime minister’s policies. “UMNO, with its lack of capable young leaders, racial bile and clear policies, is in dire condition. Remember: They lost the popular vote in 2013 and, without serious irregularities, lost the election last time as well. It is not a coincidence that the opponent has been locked up.”

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Follow Allen Cheng on Twitter at @acheng87.

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