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Date: 22 Nov 1999
Malaysia's Anwar saga cluds prospect of another ruling party triumph
KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 23 (AFP) - Asia's economic crisis helped toppled ageing authoritarian leaders in Indonesia and Thailand and might just do the same in Malaysia eventually, analysts say.
For while the Malaysian economy is rapidly recovering, they say, without the economic crisis there would have been no Anwar Ibrahim crisis.
A united opposition alliance -- galvanised by the sacking and jailing of the former deputy premier -- sees its best ever chance of ending the National Front's political domination in November 29 parliamentary and state polls.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose National Front coalition now holds 166 of 192 parliamentary seats, is certain to win. But analysts say if he suffers a serious loss of seats or loses control of two more state assemblies, pressure may grow before ruling party elections next year for a change at the top.
That is still a big "if" but what seems certain is that Mahathir would be savouring the prospect of another landslide without the Anwar saga. Another certainty, according to both sides in the poll battle and analysts, is that this will be the nastiest and dirtiest election in the country's history.
Sani Hamid of Singapore-based Standard and Poor's MMS, said the National Front "would have swept back to power if not for the Anwar saga."
"We have not seen people on the streets in decades but now we have people demonstrating as a signal of their discontent.
"Anwar has been the rallying point behind the opposition."
Mahathir, 73, acknowledged this week that before the economic crisis hit Asia, his plan was to hand over power to Anwar in 1998.
Bruce Gale, of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Singapore, said Mahathir brought Anwar -- a highly popular Islamic youth leader in the 1970s -- into government to get him on side.
"What he did not count on was Anwar using this incredible charisma and organising ability to his own benefit (to advance) in UMNO (the United Malays National Organisation, main party in the National Front)."
Gale said many saw Mahathir's sacking of Anwar on September 2, 1998, the day after the premier announced controversial currency controls, as a policy dispute. "But this was central to the whole question of political power."
He said the crisis threatened everything that Mahathir, a "very proud man," had built up since 1981. He was determined to stay on and rebuild the economy but Anwar was growing impatient to take over.
"The pressure builds and the split begins to widen."
Gale said Mahathir perhaps made a mistake in sacking Anwar in such circumstances. But having done so he could not just portray it as a minor cabinet reshuffle given the huge protest rallies which Anwar was drawing.
"Having said he sacked him for alleged sodomy and corruption he (Mahathir) had to charge him to maintain his credibility."
Anwar is serving a six-year jail term for abusing his official power to quash allegations of sexual misconduct and is now on trial for sodomy.
Khoo Boo Teik, a lecturer at University Science of Malaysia and visiting fellow at the Asia Resesarch Centre in Perth's Murdoch University, said that without the economic crisis there would have been no Anwar crisis "and maybe Mahathir would have been able to depart from the scene relatively smoothly."
Mahathir has brought Malaysia dramatic economic growth at the expense, say his critics, of human rights and clean government.
In an interview earlier this month Michael Leifer, director of the Asia research centre at the London School of Economics, predicted "a very personal election -- a vote of confidence or not in Mahathir to give him another five years in which he will decide the succession."
He said the poll would be a referendum on Mahathir, who had an enviable economic record.
"Part of the conflict with Anwar was that he was determined not to go down in history as an ageing failed leader, so it was necessaary for him to destroy Anwar," Leifer said.
One diplomat predicted that Mahathir, a famously tough political fighter, would still come out on top.
"The (poll) victory will seal his legacy after 18 years at the helm. It will be Mahathir's crowning glory before he steps down."