The nearly man: Will Anwar Ibrahim ever lead Malaysia?

PHOTO: Reuters file

There is little doubt that 2020 will go down as an annus horribilis for Malaysia.

It’s been harder hit by the Covid-19 pandemic than neighbours such as Thailand and Singapore, with part of the damage self-inflicted: most of the country’s more than 70,000 cases so far occurred during a third wave of infections that began in October, after earlier outbreaks were quelled through a gruelling months-long lockdown.

Like the rest of the region, the country’s economy is poised for a full-year economic contraction unseen since the Asian Financial Crisis, with 30,000 companies shut down and 90,000 jobs lost since March.

To compound matters, citizens have been subject since the start of the year to an ugly political tussle that at times appeared to blight the official response to the unprecedented health and economic crisis. And as the year winds down, it is that relentless political turmoil, rather than the pandemic or what lies ahead for the ravaged economy, that seems to be dominating chatter.

Of special focus is the future of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, after he made a series of moves this year that observers have characterised as blunders brought on by his own hubris.

Described for years as Malaysia’s eternal prime-minister-in-waiting, much to the 73-year-old’s irritation, questions are rising over whether it is now time for him to step aside and let new blood take over the reins of the progressive Pakatan Harapan [Pact of Hope] alliance he forged over two decades.

Political analysts, as well as some of the politician’s own allies – many in civil society, owing to his long-time reformist agenda – say there is a heightened sense of jadedness over Anwar’s repeated claims that he “has the numbers” to form a new administration, even while such parliamentary support is not apparent.

Malaysia’s political arena has been in flux since February, when current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin shocked the country by instigating a self-coup within the then ruling Pakatan Harapan by pulling support from the bloc.

Following that move, the country’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, determined that Muhyiddin would succeed then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The crisis put an end to Pakatan Harapan’s fairy tale rise to power; its audacious victory in 2018’s general election ended more than six decades of near one-party rule, and the alliance saw several former rivals – including Anwar and Mahathir – come together under an anti-corruption platform.

The new Muhyiddin government comprises the losers of the 2018 election, the formerly long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), and its most important figure: scandal-haunted ex-prime minister Najib Razak.

IN THE CROSSFIRE

While Muhyiddin has come under heavy fire since assuming power, it is Anwar who is squarely in the crossfire of the commentariat at the moment.

Frustrations with his leadership, often discussed in closed discussions among allies, spilled out into the open last week after Pakatan Harapan – at Anwar’s direction – decided to give the green light to Muhyiddin’s draft 2021 budget. This was despite the opposition bloc’s earlier intimations that it would not cooperate in any form with the premier’s “back-door government”.

For supporters, the go-ahead from Anwar indicated he did not have, as he had earlier claimed, cross-aisle parliamentary support to oust Muhyiddin.

In a September press conference beamed live on television and covered by international media, he set tongues wagging by declaring that he had a “strong, formidable, convincing” parliamentary majority that would allow him to topple Muhyiddin and restore Pakatan Harapan as the governing alliance.

But the plan did not materialise, with backers from Muhyiddin’s camp – including Najib – demurring in public over joining hands with Anwar.

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The constitutional monarch, Sultan Abdullah, delayed meeting Anwar over the plan – and, upon granting the politician an audience weeks later, indicated that he was unconvinced about the opposition leader’s ability to form a new government.

Critics’ chagrin was compounded by a similar scenario that played out in February, in the days after Muhyiddin and his fellow instigators pulled their support for the Pakatan Harapan government. While Anwar initially projected confidence about swiftly forming a new administration, Sultan Abdullah subsequently determined that it was Muhyiddin, not Anwar, who had the backing of a majority of the country’s MPs.

The budget bill episode was the last straw for some, including progressive commentators who have traditionally tended to pull their punches when it comes to Anwar, seen for decades as the country’s best bet for reform and multiracialism.

Wong Chin Huat, a leading political analyst, was among those who offered withering remarks when asked to comment on the veteran politician’s performance this year.

He said Anwar was a “pathological gambler putting his bet at every opportunity”. But “with neither luck nor the blessing of the casino’s bosses, his serial setbacks are expected”, Wong told This Week in Asia.  He added that Anwar had perennially shown a tendency of being “impatient to wait for the right time to strike”, with that quality also evident among his followers.

Said Wong: “The impatience at both the elite and mass level is due to one thing: a cynical reading of politics that powers are to be won through scheming rather than rigorous democratic competition, in which one may win with better policies and better achievements.”

Azmil Tayeb, also a local political scientist, said Anwar appeared to have a knack of “putting too much trust in coalition politics” for his prime ministerial designs, when the reality was that the state of such partnerships was simply “too unreliable” and “ever shifting”.

PROGRESSIVE DARLING

Also echoing these views were civil society activists who have a long acquaintance with Anwar.

The politician became a progressive darling after he was sacked as deputy prime minister and Umno’s No 2 leader in 1998 by Mahathir, who was then serving as prime minister and Umno president. Anwar subsequently founded the Reformasi movement, the antecedent to the present-day Pakatan Harapan as well as the Pakatan Rakyat alliance that existed before it.

He was jailed in 1999 for sodomy and corruption – charges he and rights groups say were trumped up by the then Mahathir administration. After his 2004 release, he led the opposition alliance to unprecedented gains in elections in 2008 and 2013, but was again imprisoned in 2015.

Following Pakatan Harapan’s 2018 victory, Anwar was granted a full pardon by then ruling monarch Sultan Muhammad V, and he re-entered the political fray.

[Anwar is a] pathological gambler putting his bet at every opportunity

Anwar’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Close surrogates who spoke to This Week in Asia, however, took a defiant tone, saying the politician was coming under unfair criticism when the blame for the country’s political turmoil did not lie with him.

Among them, one key ally said critics who had their knives out for Anwar now – described by the person as “mostly liberal elites” – appeared to have “selective amnesia” about his long struggle for reform.

The person said the rush to pin blame on Anwar had led to commentators giving Mahathir – the 95-year-old elder statesman who was prime minister until March – a free pass, despite his role in the political crisis.

The coup by Muhyiddin was precipitated by Mahathir’s refusal to set a date for handing over power to Anwar, as had been agreed before 2018. Muhyiddin and his fellow instigators, including his current No 2 Azmin Ali, said they were forced to take action to prevent a power vacuum that would have come about if the impasse continued.

Anwar’s camp believes Mahathir gave the coup plan the green light before pulling support at the last minute.

“The liberal elite think they are very smart, they have a certain narrative in their mind, and they say ‘let’s whack’ [Anwar],” the source said, adding that the characterisations of Anwar’s supposed blunders have come about due to the stripping away of nuance in how some of the episodes panned out.

For example, the person said while Anwar did in fact have a solid cross-party majority as he declared in September, delays in executing the plan – as a result of the king not meeting him immediately – may have had an adverse impact on such support.

Anwar’s pre-scheduled meeting with Sultan Abdullah was delayed after the king checked into the National Heart Institute and later pushed back the appointment after Muhyiddin declared a fresh lockdown in Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capital Putrajaya and surrounding areas as Covid-19 cases surged. The national palace later said the monarch had sought treatment in hospital for food poisoning and old sports injuries.

A lot can change in a day in Malaysian politics, what more a month

Additionally, Anwar was unable to prove his majority in parliament through a no-confidence motion soon after the latest legislative session opened on November 2, as calling such a vote required the Muhyiddin government’s assent – which was not forthcoming.

On the decision to back the budget last week, the person said Anwar viewed greenlighting the draft bill as a “separate matter” from backing the government.

With the country in crisis and finance minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz in “unprecedented fashion” making amendments to the budget following opposition feedback, Anwar felt compelled to back it and allow further deliberations, the person said.

The bill is now in the so-called committee stage of deliberations, during which the budgets of individual ministries are voted on by the legislature. As of Friday, the government has won all such votes despite dissent from the Pakatan Harapan camp. The budget will be passed into law after a final vote on December 15.

‘THE GAME IS NOT OVER’

Wong Chen, who is part of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (one of the three Pakatan Harapan constituent parties), offered a similar take on Anwar’s thinking.

“Anwar‘s declaration that he had the numbers in September was correct at the material time but then things beyond his control prevented him officially presenting his numbers until a month later,” he said. “A lot can change in a day in Malaysian politics, what more a month.”

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So what comes next? The Anwar confidante said the opposition leader’s camp expected Muhyiddin to call elections as soon as March, after the ongoing third wave of infections abated. The prime minister himself indicated his interest in calling a snap poll last weekend but did not offer a deadline.

“God willing, when Covid-19 is over, we will hold a general election,” Muhyiddin told members of the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), which he ejected from Pakatan Harapan to trigger the February parliamentary coup. “We will return the mandate to the people and leave it to them to choose which government they want.”

As for the budget vote, Wong Chen said Anwar promised to “fight more intensely” during the coming weeks, and if the status quo remained, the opposition would “refocus on a democracy campaign to ensure the provisions for a vote of no confidence motion become a constitutional right.”

Political analysts, despite their scathing reviews, said they believed Anwar remained the best person to lead the opposition for now. “Anwar is still best placed to lead the opposition if he can check his obsession to be prime minister and instead focus on building up a functioning shadow cabinet and force effective policy competition onto the government,” said Wong Chin Huat.

Nobody is out, and that includes Anwar

Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a political scientist with the University of Malaya, said the political warhorse had two things going for him – “his strong aura and charisma”.

Anwar must now “focus on the elections that are due by 2023 and champion the rakyat ’s [ordinary citizens’] concerns – and be a watchdog rather than a lapdog to the government of the day,” the professor said.

There is also an acknowledgement that, in a political landscape which has constantly drawn comparisons to the skulduggery rampant in the fictitious world of Game of Thrones, a lightning-quick reversal of fortunes cannot be ruled out.

Apart from Anwar, Najib and Muhyiddin, elder statesman Mahathir – who has once again fallen out with the opposition leader following Pakatan Harapan’s ousting – and politician Shafie Apdal from the state of Sabah are seen as major players in the power tussle.

“The important thing to remember is that the game is not over. Nobody is out, and that includes Anwar,” said Amrita Malhi, a Malaysian politics scholar at the Australian National University. “Every party or grouping in parliament, including his, is talking to each other. They are all running the numbers daily and horse-trading at every opportunity.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.