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POLITICS-MALAYSIA: Anwar Ibrahim – Man of the Match

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Mar 13 2008 (IPS) - Anwar Ibrahim, the man credited with radically changing the political landscape of Malaysia, could not contest the Mar. 8 general elections that saw the ruling coalition lose five state governments and its long-held two-thirds majority in parliament.

Crowds at Ibrahim&#39s rallies grew as campaigning progressed Credit: Baradan Kuppusamy/IPS

Crowds at Ibrahim's rallies grew as campaigning progressed Credit: Baradan Kuppusamy/IPS

There is a story in Ibrahim&#39s having been crippled by a five-year-ban on contesting elections, as a result of having had to serve time in jail on criminal charges, trumped-up by his political opponents.

But the former deputy prime minister fought his way back to the political centre-stage and overcame ten years of virulent government propaganda mounted against him to forge an alliance and establish a powerful opposition in parliament.

"He is clearly the man of the hour, he made it possible," said Steven Gan, editor of the independent online news provider "He glued together a viable opposition, set a common theme and led the opposition to victory."

After Saturday&#39s opposition successes politics in Malaysia will never be the same again and it was made possible through Ibrahim’s multi-racial People’s Justice Party which won the highest number of seats on the opposition benches in Parliament.

Together with the pro-Chinese Democratic Action Party and the Islamist Pan Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS, the opposition commands 82 seats, just 30 seats short of capturing the government.

It is the best ever showing by the opposition since independence in 1957 and heralds a new era of transparency, accountability and clean government that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi promised but never delivered. The voters punished him, sending his ministers and his state governments falling like ninepins.

"He has made a big comeback and has given multi-racial politics a firm foothold," said Gan. "Now a two-party system of politics is possible not a single domineering entity that is corrupt and dictatorial."

During an interview with IPS, Ibrahim pledged to defend and promote free-market economy, foreign investment and continue the development process. But he emphasised that progress and wealth will now benefit the poor of all races, not the rich and ruling elite.

"We are confident that under our leadership and working closely with our partners (in the opposition) we will begin to implement policies to ensure a stronger and more vibrant economy in Malaysia," he said.

"We will ensure that investor confidence remains strong during the transition period and also to identify areas of concern that our new governments (state governments) will address in enhancing and improving their operations and performance in Malaysia," he said.

The opposition is now busy forming coalition governments in the five states it won and is promising a new economic agenda to the people, mainly by eliminating corruption. "We will have zero tolerance for corruption and this will have a big impact in reducing business costs and build confidence in small and medium enterprises," Ibrahim vowed.

"We also plan to divorce government employees from doing business with the government, thereby reducing incentives for cronyism and insider deals which are plaguing the current administration," he said.

Ibrahim’s comeback is astounding, considering that he spent six years in prison, unfairly accused and convicted on corruption and sodomy charges – now proven to be motivated by a political conspiracy at the highest levels involving judges, crony tycoons and political leaders.

A former Islamist student activist who turned Malay nationalist, Ibrahim has successfully reinvented himself as a leader of all of Malaysia’s races and campaigned on a reformist agenda.

"The result of the election is testament to Anwar&#39s acceptability as a leader to all Malaysians because his agenda is fair and just and involves all races, especially the poor," said Ragu Kesavan, a human rights lawyer.

How did Ibrahim manage it? What is his winning formula? Political analysts say a key was his success in persuading the Islamist PAS party to drop its fiery rhetoric demanding a theocratic Islamic state – an agenda that usually drives the all important Chinese voters, about 30 percent of the electorate, into the arms of the ruling National Front.

He then forged a loose opposition alliance of three parties, allowing each to mobilise its supporters but campaign on a common theme, attacking rising prices of food and fuel, cronyism in the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party and equality for all races.

Religion, Islamic theocracy or parochial and racial issues did not figure in the opposition campaign this time, giving no ammunition to the government to exploit. Ibrahim’s message of change resonated with ordinary Malaysians irrespective of their race or religion, observers said, because it touched on rising food and fuel prices which affected all people. They said people were aware of the real danger of their prosperous country going bankrupt through the pursuit of narrow policies. "Voters voted against Badawi because of his inability to deliver on the promises he made in 2004, including the promise to fight corruption, the promise to reform the police force, the promise to be a prime minister for all ethnic groups, and the promise to improve the civil service," said political researcher Ong Kian Ming.

Chinese and Indians, descendents of immigrants under British colonial rule, who have long felt treated as second-class citizens rallied to Ibrahim&#39s "we are all equal" banner.

He also won over urban Malay voters who had not benefited from the New Economic Policy (NEP) – a Malays first affirmative action policy – by saying the benefits had been hijacked by the Malay elites.

Early in the campaign voters were wary of Ibrahim&#39s reformist agenda and the turnout at his campaign rallies seldom reached 1,000 people, but midway during the 13-day campaign the turnout steadily swelled to over 30,000.

Although Ibrahim did not contest, he is the de-facto opposition leader. He is unlikely to formalise his position by contesting in a by-election and return to parliament as opposition leader.

Pressed on this, Ibrahim told IPS: ‘’I rather look at myself as an alternative government or a government-in-waiting than an opposition leader."

He also surprisingly did not rule out accepting smaller political parties which are now members of the ruling National Front into his opposition coalition provided they subscribe to his reformist agenda.

Political parties, now partnering the substantially weakened ruling coalition, may switch allegiance and join Ibrahim. Crossing the floor is not without precedent in Malaysia and even the beleaguered Badawi has come down to saying that anyone crossing over from opposition benches would be welcomed.

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