Last updated: July 16, 2009 10:40 am

Anwar trial a double-edged sword for PM

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The sodomy trial of Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian opposition leader, which started with preliminary proceedings this week, could prove to be a double-edged sword for Najib Razak, the prime minister.

Mr Anwar’s aides claim the trial is an attempt by the government to derail a resurgent opposition by imprisoning its charismatic leader. He faces a maximum jail term of 20 years if convicted.

Mr Anwar was previously found guilty of sodomy in 1998 and spent six years in jail on that and corruption charges but an appeals court later overturned the sodomy verdict. Mr Anwar has denied the previous and current charges.

”The risk for the government is that if Anwar is convicted again, it could greatly strengthen the opposition by making him a political martyr,” said Oei Kee Beng at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

A public protest if Mr Anwar is convicted could undermine a recent surge of support for Mr Najib since he announced economic reforms and other popular measures, including a cut in road toll rates. The prime minister’s approval ratings have climbed to 65 per cent from 46 per cent in mid-May.

In a sign of renewed support for the government, an opposition candidate won a by-election on Tuesday by a surprisingly narrow margin of just 65 votes instead of sweeping to victory in the opposition-held state of Kelantan.

The result suggested that the tide could be turning against the opposition after it won a series of by-elections earlier this year that looked to be building momentum toward victory in general elections that must be held by 2013.

Government officials deny that the new sodomy trial is the result of a political conspiracy against Mr Anwar and say they cannot interfere with judicial proceedings in what is a private matter. A 23-year-old male intern last year accused Mr Anwar of sodomising him on several occasions.

Mr Anwar on Thursday won a court order forcing prosecutors to hand over physical evidence, including medical reports.

When the allegations were first aired a year ago, there was widespread public scepticism in Malaysia about the charges since it appeared to be a repeat of events in 1998 when Mr Anwar, then deputy prime minister, had a falling out with Mahathir Mohamad, the then prime minister.

Controversy over the trial could threaten Mr Najib’s attempts to portray himself as a reformer, including relaxing business rules that benefited the ethnic Malay majority at the expense of ethnic Chinese and Indians. Mr Najib is hoping the move could win back minority voters who defected to the opposition in last year’s general election when the government’s parliamentary majority was drastically reduced.

”If you believe there is a political conspiracy, it appears now to be badly mistimed since the situation has changed quite a bit from a year ago when the allegations were first raised,” said Mr Oei. ”The best outcome for Mr Najib is if the case is quickly dropped for lack of evidence.” The court is scheduled next week to hear a petition from Mr Anwar to throw the case out.

But other analysts believe that the government might welcome Mr Anwar’s conviction since he is seen as the only person able to keep the unwieldy three-party opposition coalition together. His removal could lead to the dissolution of the alliance.

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