FOR months the entire country had been nervously awaiting Malaysia Day, September 16th. And not just to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Sabah and Sarawak, Britain’s colonies on Borneo, joining with the Malayan peninsula to form Malaysia. The opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, had been promising, since his alliance’s strong showing in a general election in March, that by Malaysia Day he would convince more than 30 parliamentarians from the governing coalition to switch sides, thereby giving him a majority and allowing him to take power. Mr Anwar’s sweeping victory in a by-election last month heightened the speculation that he was on track to keep his promise.
The big day arrived. The prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, and his deputy, Najib Razak, ostentatiously went about their business, ridiculing Mr Anwar’s threat as a “mirage” and a “deception” respectively. Mr Anwar called a press conference to claim that he had “firm commitments” from enough government MPs to win power. He demanded a meeting with Mr Badawi to discuss a smooth handover. But still he did not name the supposed defectors. He has since called for parliament to be recalled from recess to hold a vote of no confidence in the government. Mr Badawi seems unlikely to agree to this or to meet Mr Anwar. The ruling coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has run the country uninterruptedly since the peninsula’s independence from Britain 51 years ago. So is Mr Anwar’s boast the bluff of the half-century?
Malaysians might have concluded thus had it not been for the signs of panic from the government over the threat from Mr Anwar, and its deep and widening splits over Mr Badawi’s leadership. The “sodomy” charge brought in June against Mr Anwar by a male ex-assistant looked suspiciously similar to the bogus charges that brought him down in 1998, when he was the deputy, and chief rival, to the then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. Eight days before Malaysia Day, UMNO packed off dozens of its MPs on a supposed study tour of Taiwan, a blatant ploy to keep them away from Mr Anwar.
Then on September 12th three thorns in the government’s side were arrested under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act, a relic of British colonial rule that allows indefinite detention without charge. They included a pro-opposition blogger who had made sensational allegations against Mr Najib and an ethnic-Chinese opposition MP whose supposed offence had been to ask her local mosque to turn down its loudspeakers (she denied this).
The third detainee, released after 18 hours, was a journalist who had accurately reported racist comments by a minor UMNO official. The official had called the country’s Chinese minority “squatters” and said they were power-hungry “like the Jews in America”. The unrepentant official himself was not arrested, just suspended from party membership. This prompted the Malaysian Chinese Association, a party in the ruling coalition, to hint that its patience with UMNO’s ethnic-Malay supremacists was close to exhaustion.
The detentions looked like the start of the wider crackdown that some fear a cornered UMNO might yet launch, to save its skin. But they succeeded only in widening the splits in the ruling party. The cabinet’s leading reformist, Zaid Ibrahim, appointed recently to overhaul the politicised justice system, resigned and announced he now had an “open mind” about joining the opposition. Muhyiddin Yassin, the trade minister, called for the prime minister to step down early (he has already promised to hand over to Mr Najib in 2010). Several other ministers openly criticised the arrests.
Dr Mahathir—who has become a bitter critic of his successor as prime minister and had recently quit UMNO in a sulk—marked Malaysia Day by letting it be known he was rejoining, presumably to foment an internal coup against Mr Badawi. The next day the prime minister said he might hand over to Mr Najib early and, in the meantime, would give him the finance minister’s portfolio, hitherto held by himself. Shortly after, the Sabah Progressive Party, a small Borneo party with two MPs, said it was quitting the ruling coalition to go “independent”.
For the opposition, the prospect of Dr Mahathir helping UMNO destroy itself is “exciting”, as Nik Aziz Nik Mat, a leader of the Islamist Party, a member of Mr Anwar’s alliance, gleefully put it. The disarray in the ruling party will do no harm to the opposition’s hopes of gaining power. But it remains unclear if it has pushed enough disaffected government MPs to make the jump to Mr Anwar’s camp. Malaysian pundits think Mr Anwar has lined up a fairly large group of potential defectors. But they reckon he can keep voters waiting only a little while longer before they start to wonder if he is no more to be trusted than the government he loves to lambast. The Economist
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