Purged, jailed and humiliated in the late 1990s, Anwar Ibrahim has staged a remarkable comeback at the helm of an opposition insurgency.
By Lorien Holland and George Wehrfritz | NEWSWEEK,Mar 24, 2008 Issue
Anwar Ibrahim takes six calls in quick succession on three different mobile phones. Five days after Malaysia's general election—in which his coalition shocked observers by winning several key states and almost ousting the long-ruling party—he has segued from surprise victor to tireless political operative, ironing out disagreements and building bridges within the still-fractious opposition. Inside his low-key suburban office, tucked several kilometers away from Parliament in leafy Kuala Lumpur, Anwar's sense of purpose—destiny, even—is palpable. "Just listen to what the others have to say. Listen," he tells one caller. "Stay calm, go home and have some dinner, some Panadol, whatever you need," he tells another, adding, "If there are still strong views and you can't solve it, let me handle [it]."
The performance is vintage Anwar: the great conciliator doing what he does best. Barely a decade ago, this was the man who was going to help Asia and the West see eye to eye and bridge the chasm between Islam and other faiths. As Finance minister and then deputy prime minister of Malaysia in the late 1990s, Anwar was heir apparent to the strongman Mahathir Mohammed. But it was always an odd pairing. Mahathir was an angry anti-colonialist, forever railing against the West; he denounced Western pressure for democracy and human rights as cultural imperialism, an affront to more authoritarian "Asian values," and fiercely resisted international attempts to dismantle Malaysia's cozy and corrupt business culture after the Asian financial crisis. Anwar, by contrast, was a proud universalist, a personally pious Muslim who was also a relentless modernizer and whose penchant for quoting Gandhi and declaring the necessity of democracy and economic openness won him international acclaim. In speeches filled with terms like "civil society" and "freedom," Anwar opposed the notion that Asians were somehow destined for repressive rule and sought to turn regional vehicles like ASEAN into forces to promote liberty and justice. This won him widespread adoration—he was named NEWSWEEK's Asian of the Year in 1998—and made him a darling of the Davos set.
But it also led to his downfall. By 1998, Mahathir had had enough of his high-flying deputy, and after Anwar publicly broke with his boss over the response to the Asian financial crisis (which Anwar hoped to use to impose fiscal discipline and dismantle Mahathir's crony system), he was sacked and then jailed on what were widely seen as trumped-up corruption and sodomy charges. "It was a terrible time," Anwar admits in a NEWSWEEK interview, but not one he is not eager to revisit. Asked about Mahathir, over whom he would appear to have scored a historic reversal of fortune, Anwar won't take the bait, dismissing his former patron as old, ill and "not an issue for me … In order to succeed, we have to look beyond him."
Under Malaysian law, Anwar is barred from holding office until April 15. Yet clearly the rising fortunes of his party make him once again a potential prime minister, though this time around his ambitions appear focused solely on Malaysia, not Asia and the world. Asked if he was poised once again to act as a bridge figure between East and West, Anwar embraced that "important role" as one he had been "playing for a long time," but then quickly gave it a distinctly local focus: reassuring both Malays and non-Malays and getting them to work together in his party.
Thanks to widespread disgust with the lackluster performance of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, the three-party opposition more than quadrupled its presence in Parliament (going from 20 to 82 seats out of 222), and it now controls five of Malaysia's 13 states. The greater import is clear: even some members of Abdullah's camp are now calling for his resignation, and "Anwar has returned as a major force," says Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
But the opposition still has to parlay those results into effective control. For the moment, Abdullah remains in charge, if barely. Still, the election was a water- shed, the closest the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has come to defeat since independence in 1957. The best Abdullah could say about the drubbing was to call it "democracy at work," and Mahathir, who retired in 2003, called it "shocking"—adding, suggestively, "The Japanese would have committed hara-kiri."
The vote also represented a major challenge to Malaysia's wide-ranging race-based affirmative-action program, which, under Mahathir gave the country's ethnic Malay majority broad preferences over the long-dominant Chinese community in business affairs. Even if the fragile center now holds in Kuala Lumpur, UMNO will soon face unprecedented threats from state governments now controlled by the opposition. Following a pattern discernible elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Anwar and his allies are staging an assault on the cronyism and patronage of old and pledging social justice, openness, transparency, and anticorruption measures.
The new movement is something of a sequel to the failed Reformasi drive of the late 1990s. Launched by Anwar after his ouster in late 1998, it aimed to ignite a "people power" uprising of the sort that had toppled Suharto in Indonesia. But Reformasi fizzled after Anwar's criminal conviction; he ultimately served six years in prison.
Yet Malaysians' desire for change never died. Abdullah, handpicked by Mahathir on the assumption he'd be easy to control, actually took up the reform mantle himself at first, pledging sweeping change during the campaign of 2004. Abdullah vowed to promote moderate Islam to counter creeping fundamentalism, promised an anti-corruption campaign and suggested he might turn back Malaysia's race-based development policies. Voters responded well, especially when, in 2005, he began dismantling massive Mahathir-era infrastructure projects. But the electorate slowly soured on the new leader as scandal and indecisiveness hobbled his administration. "He did not deliver effectively, and Malaysians called him on it," says Welsh.
If anything, the opposition's triumph was even more significant than the raw numbers indicate. Anwar's People's Justice Party grabbed 31 seats—up from just one in 2004—and its victors included his wife and daughter. Opposition candidates dominated in peninsular Malaysia's west coast, seizing the key industrial states of Penang and Selangor. To reach voters, the opposition relied on bloggers, You-Tube and text messages sent to grass-roots organizers via cell phone: common tactics in places like Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea but new to Malaysia. Indeed, they took UMNO and its National Front coalition so much by surprise that the opposition nearly won the election outright. Anwar, for one, thinks it could have; during his NEWSWEEK interview, he hinted at fraud connected to the use of mail-in votes and the Election Commission's last-minute decision to scrap plans to stain the voters' fingers with indelible ink.
The electorate also broke with the race-based voting patterns of old. Malaysia's Chinese and Indian minorities, which make up a quarter and a tenth of the population, respectively, deserted government-allied ethnic parties in favor of Anwar's Justice candidates and those of center-left Democratic Action Party. The rebellion of ethnic Indians was particularly dramatic; many quit the pro-government Malaysian Indian Congress and the MIC's leader even lost his seat. "This is new territory" for the ruling party, says Garry Rodan, director of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. "The [party's] longstanding emphasis on ethnic identity to mask socioeconomic inequalities traversing ethnic groups has much less currency now."
Anwar's coalition deftly managed this feat by playing on one issue that united Malaysians whatever their race, sex or station: dismay at rising prices that have lead to hoarding of some staples like cooking oil. Jeff Ooi, a blogger turned parliamentary candidate, traded on this anger, writing in February that "now that the cost of living has gone up, unhappiness is fermenting." By promising to raise the people's concerns in Parliament, Ooi won a seat in Penang with an impressive 16,000-ballot margin (out of 46,000).
Now the opposition must quickly transform its promises into a cohesive strategy for governing. Given internal divisions, that won't be easy; the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party wants to establish an Islamic state, while the secular, center-left Democratic Action Party wants to abolish pro-Malay preferences. These divisions kept the opposition from uniting during the last election, in 2004. But Anwar and his Justice Party are hoping to provide a bridge; in addition to controlling the most seats, his party sits between its partners on most issues. Anwar himself is working overtime to find common ground, using his charismatic magic on all parties. Before the election, he managed to persuade the three factions to divvy up constituencies so as to avoid splitting the vote, and ever since he's been working his cell phones relentlessly, jawboning allies into submission. Though he lacks a formal position, Anwar hopes to enter Parliament soon: he plans to ask an ally to resign once his legal ban lifts, and then to run for the seat in a by-election.
Any number of things could disrupt his grand plans. His Islamic allies could prove too uncompromising, or Malaysia's economy could deteriorate—something the newly empowered opposition might be blamed for. On the first trading day after the election, the Kuala Lumpur Composite Index fell by almost 10 percent, as investors dumped shares in companies with large government contracts.
Yet if he manages to hold on, Anwar's comeback will offer a powerful lesson on the dangers of complacency for long-ruling parties throughout Asia. The 4 million citizens of neighboring Singapore, for example, are already watching events closely, and comparing UMNO's fate to the city's own dominant political machine. Abdullah's shortcomings—scandals and political indecisiveness—have no obvious equivalents in Singapore. Yet UMNO's surprise setback "holds a lesson" for the city-state, one reader argued in a letter to The Straits Times last week. "Democracy's tool, the vote, is powerful and swift. A government chosen by its people must stay in touch with the ground. An incumbent who holds power for too long" could run into trouble fast if he becomes unresponsive, the writer warned.
That has been Anwar's point since the 1990s. With his nemesis, Mahathir, now reduced to carping from the sidelines, and the government coalition looking shakier than ever before, Anwar has again illustrated the fact that when fed-up citizens demand sweeping change, they can accomplish it. Anwar, of course, still has to turn promises into reality. But he's already made one thing very clear: if anyone can accomplish it, Anwar's the man.
Other articles in the Newsweek 2008 on Anwar and the 12th GE can be read here, here, and here.