Victory for Anwar?

More like victory for Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.

The acquittal of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of his second sodomy charge may have been a legal victory for the opposition leader, but politically it was, to a considerable extent, a set-back. Indeed, the acquittal is another proof of the remarkable– and surprising– political acumen of Prime Minister Najib, who had previously been regarded more as a grey technocrat than a cunning politician.

First of all, Anwar’s acquittal puts his assertion that the sodomy charge were politically-motivated in serious doubt. Throughout the trial, the opposition has been asserting that the government is bent on co-opting the judiciary in order to derail Anwar, who engineered the opposition’s impressive run during the 2008 general election. This rhetoric resonates well with the Malaysian public and the international community, who had seen how then autocratic Prime Minister Mahatir bin Mohammad used trumped-up sodomy charges to throw Anwar, then widely seen as his natural successor, to prison in 1998. But now that the court has exonerated him, Anwar’s allegations of judicial dependence has been, in effect, proven wrong. And Mahatir himself is now trying to earn some brownie points for the ruling coalition by pointing this out.

The thing is, unlike the first sodomy trial where the clear objective is to vanish Anwar from politics, it appears that the goal this time around is not to incarcerate the opposition leader but to merely buy time for Prime Minister Najib. Unlike the ruling United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO) and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition partners, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition is not as well-organized; it relies largely on Anwar’s personal support-base. Therefore, when Anwar became pre-occupied with his two-year sodomy trial, the PR coalition suffered from a leadership vacuum of sorts and lost the ability to effectively maintain the momentum it gained in 2008. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib vigorously addressed the many institutional challenges within the UMNO and subsequently raised the party’s morale. In other words, the sodomy trial made Anwar and the opposition busy while the UMNO took the time to recover from its 2008 losses and strengthen its machinery.

Secondly, Anwar’s acquittal cemented Prime Minister Najib’s new-found reputation as a serious reformer. In effect, he has sent a message that under his regime, there will be greater judicial independence and the government will refrain from engaging in character assassination of political opponents. Already, some in the international community are impressed. Australia’s former Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, for instance, commended the Prime Minister, saying that the acquittal is just the latest in the series of impressive and significant reforms that the Malaysian leader has been implementing,  which include the overhaul of election laws, the easing of media censorship and restriction on freedom of expression and assembly, and the move to abolish the draconian Internal Security Act and Emergency Ordinance– laws that had long been used by previous autocratic governments to stifle political dissent.

Ever since last year’s massive pro-democracy protests in Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Najib has been trying to differentiate himself from his predecessors– the autocratic Mahatir and the politically weak and largely ineffective Abdullah Ahmad Badawi– by packaging himself as a progressive reformer with steady and able hands, and Malaysia and the world are taking notice. This has deprived the opposition, who has long championed civil rights and reformasi, of an important rallying cry against the ruling regime. By making reformasi not mutually exclusive to the opposition, the government has framed the political debate solely on the question of which among the two coalitions is more capable of leading the country. In effect, Prime Minister Najib is telling Malaysians to stick with the devil they know rather than the devil they are not familiar with.

The burden is now on the Pakatan Rakat coalition to prove that, in terms of governance, they are more capable than the long-entrenched UMNO-led Barisan Nasional. It would be a very heavy burden, indeed. Clearly, Anwar’s persecution complex and personality-based politics will no longer be enough for him and his hodgepodge opposition coalition to wrest control of Putrajaya.

At the end of the day, it’s a score for Prime Minister Najib. The ball is now in Anwar’s court.

Update, Jan. 21: The prosecution has appealed Anwar’s acquittal, according to a report by New Strait Times.


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