Two challengers

Published : Sep 26, 2008 00:00 IST

If Malaysias politics is about the future, Thailand is caught in a time warp as the fortunes of two deposed leaders show.

in Singapore

IT is fast becoming a dramatic tale of two democrats, each with passion for polarising politics in two different settings in South-East Asia.

Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysias newly anointed Leader of the Opposition, and Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailands charismatic but controversial former Prime Minister, are in the news again for different reasons. Anwar is challenged at every half-step on his comeback trail. Thaksin appears to be hounded, at least outwardly, at every half-step of his self-styled retreat from centre stage.

Anwar, a once-imprisoned leader who was acquitted by the apex court in one of the two cases against him, won a parliamentary byelection on his home turf on August 26. With that, he signalled his readiness to go the extra mile to try and unseat Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi by mid-September. The timeline was dictated by the countrys calendar of political celebrations.

Abdullahs perceived vulnerability was that he managed to retain power with only a vastly reduced majority in the March general elections. He had called that snap poll to ride out a crisis. In the event, he lost his 90-per cent-plus parliamentary mandate, while the Opposition registered its best-ever performance by bagging over one-third of the seats in the powerful Lower House.

Unsurprisingly, in these circumstances, politically accentuated by August end, Anwar was busy, by his own admission, with efforts to change the landscape of the House of Representatives to his advantage. He had just then re-entered Parliament after nearly a decade of political exile.

Such an exit from centre stage was caused by his conviction in a corrupt practice case, which was ironically related to his alleged sexual misconduct in another case that was later thrown out by the apex court. Anwar, who was dismissed as Deputy Prime Minister before his arrest in 1998, was convicted and formally imprisoned in 1999. Following his acquittal and release in 2004, he served a mandatory period of electoral disqualification until mid-April this year. And, it is a talking point in Malaysia now that Abdullah called the snap general elections in March itself in a hardly opaque move to prevent Anwar from contesting at that time.

For Anwar, the current alchemy of his political ambitions and his existential travails of having to defend himself in a legal case is not really new.

In a quirk of history repeating itself, at least up to a point, Anwar was only on bail at the time of his latest electoral triumph. The bail pertained to the case of sexual misconduct, which was said to involve another man, a one-time aide, as the victim. And the victim swore by a religious book in the Malay-Muslim-majority Malaysia to prove, outside of the secular judicial domain, that he was indeed sexually assaulted by Anwar.

While Anwar brushed this aside as bankrupt gamesmanship with no political substance, his own camp, too, was not averse to portraying some leaders of the government in a poor light for their personal failings. And, given the high stakes involved in the byelection, in Permatang Pauh in Penang State, now under the secular Democratic Action Party (DAP) belonging to the Opposition Peoples Pact Alliance (PPA), the campaign was, indeed, pungent.

However, neither this aspect nor the general perception about the constituency as Anwars pocket borough can detract from the real meaning of his win as a wake-up call for Abdullah and his minions. And, the logical question, with no possibility of a precise answer when this report was written, is whether Anwar will be able to use this victory as a springboard to power at the federal level.

In a House of 222 members, the PPA commands the loyalty of 82 members as at the end of August, leaving the coalition at least 30 seats short of the mandatory absolute majority, the 50-per-cent-plus mark. Anwars hopes and calculations were based on a qualitative reasoning. It was that the March general elections, despite a notional victory for Abdullahs ruling Barisan Nasional (B.N., or National Front) coalition, yielded in reality a mandate for transformational change in Malaysia. The basic thrust of the political argument was that the Opposition had never before obtained more than one-third of the parliamentary seats at stake.

Moreover, the general elections, flawed because of the refusal of the poll authorities to provide a level playing field, produced a result which, in a fair setting, would have translated into a clear win for the Opposition. Allegations about bogus voting lists and phantom ballots lay behind such reasoning by and on behalf of Anwar.

The lure of such qualitative reasoning remained to be tested as Anwar took oath as a parliamentarian and led an Opposition walkout over a Bill, which was seen as being aimed at him in the context of the court case that was unresolved at that time. His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who became Malaysias first-ever woman Leader of the Opposition in the wake of the March general elections, was now watching admiringly from the sidelines. She had vacated her seat so that Anwar could contest a byelection and bounce onto centre stage before any denouement, one way or another, in the latest court case against him.

Veteran Opposition leaders, such as Lim Kit Siang of the DAP, with a base among the strong ethnic Chinese minority, backed Anwar in his new campaign to form an alternative government in the present parliamentary setting itself. And, in fact, Anwars own Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or the Peoples Justice Party) has, since its founding at the time of his incarceration in the late 1990s, sought to carve out a secular niche. The PKR has consistently sought to reach out not only to the majority Malays and the Chinese minority but also to the smaller section of ethnic Indians.

Of strength and satisfaction to the PKR in these circumstances is that it could, with ease, echo the voices of ethnic Indians, whose sudden burst of protest over their marginalisation in Malaysia was a big issue in the March polls.

At a different level, the PPA draws strength from its other constituent, the Parti Islam-Se Malaysia (PAS), a radical outfit the attitude of which is changing in favour of trimming its religious sails to the postmodern winds of secular politics.

However, the B.N. remains keen to split the Opposition ranks by pandering, through subtle hints and otherwise, to the PAS as a party that first raised the notion of forming an Islamic state in Malaysia. As a result, an element of suspense on the federal political scene is whether the B.N. can stop the Opposition in its tracks by humouring the PAS and weaning it away.

The B.N. keeps reminding itself and Malaysians that it was born as a power-sharing platform under a social contract involving the various population groups in the country. This social contract, in the B.Ns world view, does not negate the prime agenda of the main constituent party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). This agenda, which the Chinese minority and the ethnic Indians see as being detrimental to their respective interests, is one of affirmative action in favour of the Malay-Muslim majority. The basis of such a policy, implemented in Malaysia for several decades now, is that the Malays were, in a historical perspective, a disadvantaged group in their own homeland.

With the UMNOs central policy plank having already led to a shrinkage of the partys vote share in the March polls, the ruling coalition is now faced with the task of redefining this aspect.

As a former UMNO insider, Anwar said, during the March polls, that he would tailor the pro-Malay affirmative action to the needs of all economically disadvantaged groups, regardless of their race and religion. In the process, he assured the Malays that their distinctive interests would not be ignored.

Such qualitative aspects will form the political backdrop for the final outcome of Anwars bid to engineer a parliamentary revolt within the ruling camp. Yet, the numbers game, as of early September, might be determined by the charisma of the contenders Abdullah, Anwar, and the present Deputy Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak.

If Malaysias politics now is about the future, neighbouring Thailand is caught in a time warp, as it were.

As a kingdom that has seen several military coups and interludes of democratic governance under a highly venerated constitutional monarch, Thailand is unable to come to grips with the legacy of Thaksin. He is clearly the most popular of the democratically elected leaders in recent times, although his critics, too, outnumber those of any other Thai civilian leader since the abolition of absolute monarchy decades ago.

However, the crisis, beginning to flare up once again as at the end of August, is all about the fears of some highly vocal sections of people regarding the political ghost of Thaksinisation, which they see stalking Thailand.

When this is written, Thaksin, deposed as Prime Minister in a military coup while he was abroad in September 2006, is back in self-imposed exile after a brief sojourn at home. The sojourn, which did not go according to his script, followed the restoration of democracy in the early part of this year. In the event, the wrath of the protesters, milling in and near the Government House in Bangkok in round-the-clock rallies, is directed against Prime Minister Samak Sunderavej, widely seen as Thaksins proxy.

A key theme of these protesters is similar to that of those who campaigned against Thaksin in what turned out to be the run-up to the 2006 military coup. They are opposed to what they see as high-handed democracy and corruption, cronyism and nepotism under cover of laws passed in abuse of a democratic mandate from the ordinary people.

A number of leaders of these protest groups, which work under the umbrella of Peoples Alliance for Democracy, are from the elite sections, as different from the poor masses who continue to hold Thaksin in great esteem. Despite all the controversies that he managed to create and thrive on while in power, Thaksin was able to create a network of health care and other social welfare measures that visibly benefited the poor.

The anti-Thaksin coup masters, who pledged loyalty to the king, did not succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the poor. The elite, which euphorically welcomed the anti-democracy putsch in the first place, later became disenchanted. As a result, the coup masters held a democracy-restoring election last December, and Samak emerged as Prime Minister at the head of a coalition.

Samak has been finding the going tough, unable to resist the backstage manoeuvres of the military establishment. And, with the constitutional and legal systems not yet restored as democracy-friendly institutions free of the corrosion they suffered under the recent military rule, Samak and his band, too, are disenchanted. Thaksin, on his return home earlier this year, had agreed to face trial and clear his name in the cases that were slapped on him by the military coup masters. However, sensing that he would not get a fair trial under what he saw as an unreformed system, he jumped bail, after taking the courts permission to attend the Beijing Olympics, and made his way to London for another round of self-imposed exile. An arrest warrant was duly issued in those circumstances, and his retreat from power is becoming as dramatic as Anwars plans for returning to power.

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