By Murray Hiebert & Nigel Cory
The jailing of veteran Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy (for the second time) marks a turning point for Malaysia and Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration. The highest court’s rejection of Anwar’s final appeal and decision to sentence him to five years in prison tarnishes Malaysia’s increasingly battered reputation as a modestly free and vibrant democracy. The consequences of the verdict are likely to keep Najib preoccupied with issues at home and distract him from his foreign policy priorities in the year ahead.
Anwar, 67, has been central over the past decade in building the opposition coalition, holding its disparate parties and personalities together, and leading them as close as any opposition has come to taking power in Malaysia. The opposition built on the 40 percent of the popular vote it got in the 2008 elections by winning 50.8 percent in 2012. The only thing stopping the opposition from taking power was Malaysia’s highly gerrymandered electoral map. Achieving this cohesion has been no easy task given the widely differing ideologies of the three components parties that make up his coalition. His charismatic style and firebrand speeches worked well with the retail politics of Malaysia, especially among Malaysia’s social media savvy youth.
Anwar’s jailing raises questions about the opposition coalition’s future. Anwar’s imprisonment could again make him a martyr, catalyzing a renewed level of public support, much like his first imprisonment for sodomy did in 1998. Or it could fracture the opposition by exacerbating some of the tensions that became increasingly clear during the messy intra-coalition fight over the replacement of the chief minister in the opposition controlled state of Selangor last year. The coalition is fragile without Anwar because it lacks organizational depth and has largely been held together by Anwar and other key party leaders. Anwar has no clear successor, although a new generation of opposition leaders is beginning to emerge.
The verdict points toward some troubling consequences for Malaysia and Najib. Widespread speculation that the case against Anwar was politically motivated and an attempt to silence him have sharply divided Malaysia during the suit’s nearly seven years of slow and often questionable progress through Malaysia’s courts. The verdict further undermines Najib’s efforts to differentiate himself from the heavy handed tactics of the country’s authoritarian past that many thought contemporary Malaysia had moved beyond. It also adds to Malaysia’s slide away from democratic principles and practice with many opposition politicians, activists, and academics being charged with sedition under a colonial era law which Najib had promised, then reneged, to repeal.
Najib already had his hands full with domestic political and economic challenges. The slump in oil prices has hit Malaysia’s economy and finances hard given the critical role played by its oil and gas sector. Najib started adjusting to this new reality on January 20 by announcing a series of spending cuts as part of a revised 2015 budget. Never helpful in gaining support, the spending cuts come at a time when Najib and his supporters are already locked in a growing political battle with former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and former finance minister Daim Zainuddin, and their supporters. Mahathir and Daim have become increasingly disillusioned with Najib and his administration and have latched onto any missteps to attack him. The Anwar verdict will likely motivate them to keep pushing to undermine Najib’s agenda, if not push for his actual removal.
Malaysia’s foreign policy is likely to take a backseat to Najib’s growing domestic preoccupations. This comes at a time when Malaysia has the opportunity to play a key role in shaping regional and global issues as chair of ASEAN in 2015 and as a non-permanent member on the United Nations Security Council. The region’s focus will shift to Malaysia in the coming months as it prepares to host U.S. president Barack Obama and other leaders for the East Asia Summit (EAS) later in 2015.
The verdict against Anwar will certainly prompt criticism from foreign governments and human rights groups concerned about the increasingly authoritarian trends in Malaysia. It will create some real challenges for the United States and could at least temporarily derail efforts to nurture closer ties between Washington and Kuala Lumpur.
Obama had visited Malaysia last April in the first visit by a U.S. president in almost five decades and had agreed with Najib that their two countries would deepen ties by launching a “comprehensive partnership.” The two leaders played golf together in January when they were on separate vacations in Hawaii. The U.S. administration has been considering inviting Najib on an official visit to Washington this year as he prepares to host the ASEAN summit and EAS in November. Kuala Lumpur could expect this visit may now be put on the backburner.
Malaysia is part of the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, which include the United States, and negotiators are scrambling to complete the agreement in an attempt to get it ratified by the U.S. Congress later this year. In the wake of the imprisonment of Anwar, Malaysia could be on the hot seat when the agreement is debated in Congress.
Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1. Mr. Nigel Cory is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. He previously served as an Australian diplomat in Malaysia and the Philippines.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.