By Dr Ooi Kee Beng | 9 January 2012
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore
To the great surprise of many of his followers, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was found not guilty of the sodomy charge brought against him by a former aide.
High Court judge Zabidin Mohamad Diah declared him innocent early on Monday morning, while huge crowds gathered outside the building in support of the former deputy prime minister. The DNA samples presented by the prosecution to prove Mr Anwar’s guilt, he decided, were compromised.
The unexpected verdict may not prove that the judiciary is free of the executive, but it does show that the executive is not all-powerful.
This is also the second time Mr Anwar has been acquitted on such a charge. After being sacked as the country’s second most powerful person by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed back in September 1998, he was jailed for misuse of power for six years. Just when a consecutive nine-year jail sentence for sodomy was to be served, the Federal Court overturned the decision in 2004.
After that Mr Anwar’s return to the thick of politics was spectacular. He managed to sew together an electoral agreement in 2008 between his Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and the Islamist Parti Agama SeMalaysia and the Democratic Action Party.
Not only did this lead to historical victories when the three parties won five of 13 states plus the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur, it also paved the way for Mr Anwar to regain his parliamentary seat.
Although Monday’s verdict is being used by the government to rebut opposition claims that the country’s judiciary is strongly compromised by state intervention, the advantage gained from this will not be significant, given many other examples of bad governance.
But the acquittal is a strong gust of wind in the sail of the opposition coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). While a guilty verdict would have provided the PR with powerful arguments about deteriorating governance, Mr Anwar being free to campaign is of much greater benefit to its chances of winning federal power.
He is a formidable speaker, as was obvious during the last general election in March 2008 when many Malays swung to support him late in the campaign. Without that shift, the opposition would not have come close to making the impressive gains that they did.
In the days before the verdict was due, Mr Anwar went on a whirlwind tour of the country to shore up support. He gave several speeches setting out the direction for his coalition, declaring that as many as 40% of the candidates that his own party would field in the coming elections would be new ones, who would be both young and educated.
This was engineered to go down well with the growing crowd of reform-seeking voters whose main complaint since 2008 had been that the calibre of PR lawmakers was less than impressive. With this, Mr Anwar signalled that his party did realise that a new generation of capable youths had to be recruited if his reform movement was to progress further.
The weeks preceding the verdict also saw increased calls by student demonstrators to be allowed to participate in politics and to join parties. This right was constitutionally denied them after race riots took place in Kuala Lumpur in May 1969.
This second sodomy case had been going on for three-and-a-half years, distracting Mr Anwar greatly at a time when the newly-formed opposition needed to concentrate its resources.
The allegation came to public attention in June 2008, when Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, an aide newly recruited into Mr Anwar’s office, lodged a police report that his boss had performed sodomy on him.
This hurt Mr Anwar’s crucial attempt at that time to convince government lawmakers to defect and join the opposition on 16 September, Malaysia Day, causing great damage to his credibility.
Making Mr Anwar appear a morally dubious person has been the weapon of choice of his enemies for a long time. In 1998, a book titled 50 reasons why Anwar cannot become Prime Minister was circulated among members of the ruling party, harming his reputation.
In March last year, there was a further attempt to smear Mr Anwar’s reputation. A video was screened at a press conference, showing someone resembling Mr Anwar having sex with a supposed prostitute. Mr Anwar and his family denied that the person captured on film was him.
Now that these smear campaigns are behind him, his coalition is expected to prepare for the coming elections with renewed vigour. Surviving the trial strengthens Mr Anwar’s standing as a comeback kid.
The latest acquittal is not as much a defeat for Prime Minister Najib Razak as it is for the right wing in his coalition.
After the 2008 election saw five states falling to the opposition, a polarisation took place within the ruling party between moderates who accepted that Malaysia was now a two-party democracy on the one hand, and a group who took it upon themselves to undermine the opposition and reverse the democratic process on the other.
The prime minister’s only chance of winning electoral ground now is to enhance his image as a reformist leader. To do that, he must rein in the conservatives in his party.
Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. His recent book is The Right to Differ: A Biographical Sketch of Lim Kit Siang.