Malaysia’s most controversial politician wants to become prime minister – but to achieve that he will have to unseat a party that has ruled for 60 years.
Anwar Ibrahim with supporters after being cleared of sodomy charges in January 2012. Photograph: Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters
He is the man many Malaysians love to hate. Once considered his nation’s political tour de force, Anwar Ibrahim has spent the greater part of the past two decades in jail, wrapped up in court proceedings and enduring what he calls a long-standing smear campaign – from being labelled a chauvinist and Zionist to facing accusations that he is homosexual, guilty of sodomy and anti-Muslim.
Now Anwar is fighting his last fight: to be Malaysia’s next prime minister, a battle for which he has been preparing for a very long time.
At speeches and rallies Anwar is vibrant, compelling, persuasive. In person he is slight, ageing and soft-spoken, sipping black tea with honey as he outlines why his opposition alliance expects to usurp the prime minister, Najib Razak, and the incumbent Barisan Nasional (National Front), which has governed Malaysia for nearly 60 years.
“The mood is there, the mood for change,” Anwar says from his office at the multi-storeyed headquarters of his People’s Justice party in central Kuala Lumpur. “I’m very optimistic that we will wrest control and make major inroads.”
Anwar has long been a contender to rule Malaysia but his political career has suffered vertiginous highs and lows. The spectacular ascent that saw him grace the cover of Newsweek as Asian of the Year and become the heir apparent of then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad was met with an equally spectacular crash in 1998, when the two fell out and Anwar was imprisoned for six years on corruption and sodomy charges, claims he repeatedly dismissed as politically motivated.
Times have not been easy since his release in 2004. Despite leading an opposition coalition to a famous result in the 2008 general election, when it stole one-third of the parliamentary seats and five states from the National Front, Anwar soon found himself facing new sodomy charges, accusations that were only dismissed this January due to lack of evidence.
But his movement is full of hope. Elections are expected to be called any time in the next nine months, and even those who do not openly back Anwar often support what he stands for: relief from an autocratic and out-of-touch government they say has ruled Malaysia for too long. In April many tens of thousands of Malaysians took to the nation’s streets to demand electoral reform at rallies organised by Bersih, an opposition-backed coalition of civil-society groups whose name means “clean” in Malay.
According to political columnist Art Harun, Bersih has thrown “a massive spanner in the [government] works” as increasingly informed activists point to numerous corruption scandals and police brutality as proof that government reform is necessary. But when it comes to voting they will have to contend with a determined ruling party that has been accused of playing dirty to win. “The electoral roll is our Achilles’ heel and their way of winning,” sighs opposition MP and Anwar’s 31-year-old daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar, herself a participant in April’s rally. “Before it was just small instances … Now we’ve unearthed a whole pool of data.” She claims that in her constituency alone she has 10,000 voters who suddenly ‘appeared’ on electoral lists.
Anwar’s greatest task will be proving that he can actually instigate the change Malaysians have long been calling for, says Malaysia expert Bridget Welsh of Singapore Management University. “Four months after Bersih there are two important issues: the management of the economy and who can manage the economy best, and who can offer more options in democratic governance,” she says. “The third aspect is whether this election will be free and fair … so what we have is a situation where the integrity of the [electoral] process is as important as the process itself.”
Matters are complicated by new charges that Anwar faces of opposing a court order at the Bersih rally. If convicted he would not be able to stand for office in the next election. He denies the allegations.
If elected Anwar knows that his will be a tricky balancing act in a nation that sells itself as “Moderate Malaysia”, where even his own opposition alliance spans his People’s Justice party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party and the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action party.
“We have discussed economic policies, social policies and religious positions, and we have come to agreements,” he says of his own alliance. “But there’s a big, huge internal battle” – he strikes every word with his finger on his desk – “among the [wider] Malaysian community between the fanatics and the extremists to petition broader, more liberal tolerance. We call ourselves liberals … [but] we must put in check, not through brute force, but through active and vibrant intellectual discourse, these [extremist] aberrations.”
Voters may be hoping for change at the next general election but they know they can’t expect it. “What we want to see is a multi-party democracy where, every two or three years, the [leading] party will change,” explains Bersih leader Ambiga Sreenavasan. “We’re not averse to Barisan coming back but if parties think they’re going to lose power, they behave a lot better. [This] is about power coming back to the people. It’s about us being in charge.”
If Anwar is unsuccessful in what is very likely his last bid at the prime ministership, many of those on the ground expect his daughter to one day carry the torch. Young, articulate and popular, Nurul Izzah personifies all of her father’s promise, without, perhaps, the residual baggage. “I think she’ll be the first woman prime minister of this country,” says Ambiga. “I’ve said it so many times, I hope it comes true.”