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FEER: Secret Anwar Deal? Well . . .
By Leslie Lopez

17/1/2002 2:50 pm Thu

Secret Anwar Deal? Well . . .

With the final appeal of Anwar Ibrahim postponed, people are speculating: What would happen if he were to return to politics?

By Leslie Lopez/KUALA LUMPUR

Issue cover-dated January 24, 2002

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, talk began to circulate among opposition leaders that Malaysia's most persistent political problem would be settled during the fasting month of Ramadan, when Muslims are urged to forgive their worst enemies.

In whispered tones, politicians and businessmen cited "well-placed sources" telling them that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his now-jailed former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, had struck a deal for political reconciliation. Mahathir, it was said, removed Anwar from prison for a secret hour-long meeting during a car ride along the winding Karak Highway outside Kuala Lumpur.

But talk of a deal evaporated rapidly after the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. By quickly backing the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign, Mahathir won praise from Washington, which had long been critical of his government's handling of Anwar. The praise helped muffle attacks against his administration for its frequent use of tough security laws-which allow detention without trial-to silence his political opponents, and for its jailing of Anwar, who the U.S. still considers a political prisoner.

At home, ethnic Chinese and Indians, fearful of the rise of militant Islam, quickly rallied behind the premier and have been widely supportive of his crackdown on suspected Muslim militants over the past six months. In the meantime, the opposition coalition led by the Islamic party Pas has begun to unravel.

"I wouldn't discount anything in politics. But the need to strike a political deal with Anwar isn't urgent anymore because the PM is riding high," says a former cabinet minister and senior member of Mahathir's ruling United Malays National Organization, or Umno.

So is Anwar, who is now serving a total of 15 years in jail sentences, a spent political force? Political analysts and politicians, including those from Umno, are divided on this point. Most agree that the influence of the Anwar affair in shaping Malaysian politics has been sharply reduced. Repeated postponements of his court appeals against convictions on charges of corruption and sexual misconduct have taken Anwar out of the local and international news. Most recently, a final appeal scheduled for January 14 was postponed, and the new attorney-general dropped a sedition charge against lawyer Karpal Singh for statements made in Anwar's defence in a 1999 trial.

The Keadilan party, headed by Anwar's wife, is also in deep trouble. Already hit by defections among its senior leaders, the party is expected to lose a by-election for a seat in the legislature in the northern Perlis state to the government candidate on January 19. Unlike previous by-election battles where the Anwar affair played a crucial role, the battle for the Indera Kayangan district is being fought on issues such as the need for more housing and better infrastructure. Keadilan officials privately concede that the Anwar issue isn't being used as the focus in the by-election because it wants to remove the stigma of claims that it is a single-issue opposition group.

Still, many politicians concede that writing Anwar's political obituary may be premature, simply because Mahathir's Umno has yet to regain its supremacy among ethnic Malays, who form nearly 60% of Malaysia's 23 million people.

Umno has seen its fortunes ebb in recent years following Mahathir's sacking of Anwar in September 1998 and Anwar's subsequent conviction and imprisonment. Anwar has maintained that he is a victim of a political conspiracy, a claim many Malaysians, especially the Malays, take seriously. "He is one of the main factors for the anger among the people towards the Malaysian leadership, even now," says Nik Aziz Nik Mat, Pas leader and chief minister of the opposition-led Kelantan state. Among leaders, he says, Anwar "is still the most credible for the Malays and the Muslims."

Several analysts feel that Mahathir's overtures to the U.S. and his crackdown on suspected Muslim militants haven't endeared him to the Malays, who are already disenchanted with him for failing to put in place a clear leadership succession. Corruption in government has also alienated the ethnic Malays, including staunch Umno supporters. At a time when many rural Malays are struggling due to a weak economy, government bailouts such as the rescue of Malaysia Airlines have only served to increase the disillusionment with Umno and Mahathir's administration.

Against this backdrop, rural Malays see very little wrong in Pas's call for the establishment of an Islamic state. "Umno hasn't wrested the Malay turf that it previously enjoyed before the Anwar affair," concedes an analyst with a pro-government research institute.

Unless Umno captures the hearts and minds of the Malay community soon, divisions among the Malays could become unbridgeable and the political respite Mahathir currently enjoys could quickly dissipate in the event of a local crisis. A potential problem for Mahathir is Anwar's health. He is already in need of back surgery. Last week, the jailed politician announced that he was going on a strict fast-restricting his food intake to one meal a day-in protest against the postponement of his court hearing. Should his health worsen, anger among the Malays toward the government could quickly bubble to the surface.

That is precisely why a deal with Anwar isn't being discounted. In fact, some Umno politicians believe that Mahathir could emerge largely unscathed should he reconcile with his political rival.

They note that the 76-year-old leader, who is in his 21st year in power, could easily find scapegoats for his actions three years ago by claiming that he was misled by Anwar's political rivals into believing the charges of sexual misconduct. Malaysians would be grateful to have the three-year political crisis behind them, and would be likely to go easy on their ageing leader, who many believe was simply defending his political position against an upstart Anwar.

Anwar, on the other hand, could have a harder time, some Umno politicians and analysts argue. To get back into the political game and have a shot at the premiership in a post-Mahathir era, Anwar and his supporters would need to work their way back into Umno's cadre system. That would be tough.

The now-jailed politician would also have to deal with credibility issues. Walking back to Umno and turning against the opposition coalition that stood by him over the past three years would be reminiscent of a gambit Anwar pulled in early 1982. At the time, Anwar, a charismatic and outspoken young government critic, shocked his closest friends when he swapped his role as anti-government crusader for a career in Umno. "There will be the stigma that he is so ambitious that he will do anything for the No.1 job," says a Malay businessman and close associate of Anwar.

For all the speculation, Anwar rejects talks of a deal. Speaking through his lawyer, Sankara Nair, he says that "talk of any reconciliation is a ploy by Mahathir to appease the Malays. He wants to disrupt Keadilan and show the Malays that he is being magnanimous in wanting to talk."