Anwar’s return to politics worries government as it looks ahead to general elections

Barely a month after he announced his intention of returning to the political stage, Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister, is back in limelight. Since being released from jail in late 2004, he had been travelling around the world delivering speeches to academic institutions and thinktanks. Now he has promised to give the Malaysian opposition a shot in the arm.

Anwar’s ability to re-energize the opposition parties, representing different agendas and ideologies, is not to be dismissed altogether. When he was removed from office by Mahathir Mohamad in 1998, he had only three weeks as a free man to travel around the country and do the impossible: unite the various opposition parties, including the Islamic Party (PAS), as well as mobilize huge crowds to oppose Mahathir’s government. Mahathir knew this, always admitting that his former deputy was “efficient”, and so ordered his infamous arrest and orchestrated a long trial by media and judiciary, thus putting Anwar away for the next four years.

How things have changed since. “I have gone through the cycle. I have dined with Kings and I have eaten horrible meals in prison. I am not seeking revenge,” said Anwar in a recent speech. In interviews broadcast by international news channels, Anwar reiterated that he would participate actively in elections and party politics. He has accepted nominations to become the president of the National Justice Party (Keadilan), which was formed after his arrest and is now headed by his wife. Most observers agree that Keadilan, like many parties born out of conflicts in the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), waxes in strength as UMNO wanes, but Anwar the person is a different matter.

When he was released from jail, barely three months after Mahathir’s retirement, many perceived this as the result of a behind-the-scenes deal with Abdullah Badawi and his government. However, Anwar is now openly attacking government leaders in almost daily public speeches. His most talked-about allegation involves Najib Razak, the current deputy prime minister, also a prime ministerial hopeful, whom Anwar has challenged the police to investigate for his alleged ties to the gruesome murder of a Mongolian woman (an aide of Najib’s is currently being charged with this murder). Asked by reporters whether he intends to sue Anwar for defamation of character, Najib has said that he will not do so, fuelling further rumours that Anwar, who was in office in various positions for 16 years (including time as a deputy and acting prime minister, to whom reports of misbehaviour of cabinet members were sent) could know things that others do not. With so much knowledge of skeletons in cupboards, the government’s response to counter the opposition even in a small by-election is understandable.

There being a notable shortage of charismatic leaders in Malaysia, Anwar appears to be the obvious choice to lead a waning opposition movement that could have swept to power eight years ago, had it not been for irregularities in the electoral process and the overuse of racial prejudices by the ruling party.

When Abdullah Badawi started his term, Malaysians hoped for a fresh start, wiping out everything that had happened during the Mahathir era. Now, however, issues for the opposition are slowly being handed to them on a silver plate. Despite almost three years in power, Abdullah has so far failed to make any impact. The opposition, however, has not been able to exploit his failures and mistakes, because of what is seen as their over-reliance on Mahathir for political opportunities. With Mahathir gone from the scene, PAS is seen as ‘disarmed’, and its struggles look as if they are intended only to make sure that its government in Kelantan state is defended in every election. In this situation, news of Anwar’s return to the domestic political scene is welcome to the opposition parties. He is expected to put all his political skills and personal charisma–” which once placed him at the helm of power –” to use against the government.

In two recent by-elections he has campaigned actively for opposition candidates. While government leaders have been quick to dismiss Anwar’s chances of becoming prime minister –” an ambition he has pursued consistently since his student-leader days in the 1970s –” the fact that so many millions of dollars have been spent on two very small bye-elections shows how much the government fears the “Anwar factor”.

Whether this can be translated into votes Anwar himself is not sure. “You come, hear me and clap for me, and then you go home and vote for UMNO the next day,” he quipped to thousands of people at Ijok, a town in Selangor state which is holding a by-election on April 28 (as Crescent goes to press). The town was transformed overnight into a hive of activity, with the government pouring about RM50 million (US$15m) into roadworks, broken pipes, irrigation, building upgrades, agricultural subsidies and cash handouts. At almost every corner, senior government leaders could be seen campaigning to the mere 11,000 or so voters in the district.

Opposition leaders welcome Anwar’s return, although many are unimpressed by his handling of non-domestic issues, as well as his ties to some Western leaders (the comparison between Anwar’s and Mahathir’s foreign policies is the subject of frequent debate among observers). But Anwar, able political animal that he is, has talked his way successfully through both ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘secular’ crowds. In many of his recent speeches, he has been at pains to scoff at speculations that he is a “western agent”. If rarity in speaking out against western attacks on Islam and Muslims is anything to judge by, such speculations cannot be dismissed altogether. Yet he has managed to soothe some ruffled feathers recently, such as last month, when he criticised Australia’s John Howard for being a “lackey” of George Bush in Iraq. It is not everyday that Anwar uses such terms about the US.

At least in domestic politics, the opposition parties need Anwar more than he needs them. The general elections, although not due until 2009, are almost certain to be called before April 2008. Anything held later than that means Anwar –” a former convict –” will be legally entitled to stand as a candidate, and will almost certainly win a parliamentary seat because of his charisma, despite the procedural irregularities that riddle Malaysia’s electoral process. That is a nightmare that his former colleagues want to avoid at any cost.

So whether the “Anwar factor” is real remains to be seen, depending largely on Abdullah Badawi’s choice of date for Malaysia’s next general elections.