Fears of Conspiracy Against Anwar in Malaysia

Just a few years ago, Anwar Ibrahim—Malaysia's former deputy prime minister turned opposition leader—was behind bars, and the career of this Western- and market-friendly reformer seemed over. Then, last March, Anwar shocked even his most devout supporters by roaring back onto the political scene, leading the opposition to record gains in parliamentary elections. His opposition coalition won control of five of Malaysia's 13 states and 49 percent of the overall vote. Since then, he has sought to solidify his power base. He announced plans to run for Parliament himself in a by-election in July, and recently said that enough legislators might defect from the long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO)-led coalition that the opposition could win control of the country by September. If that happened it would give Anwar a shot at the prime minister's office—and help him chart one of the greatest political comebacks in history.

All seemed to be going according to plan until June 29, when Anwar got a text message from an unknown source informing him that Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a 23-year-old aide, had accused him of sodomy, a crime punishable by 20 years' imprisonment in Muslim-majority Malaysia. The sense of déjà vu was strong, for UMNO and former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad had used just such a charge to derail Anwar's political career in 1998, when Anwar started showing uncomfortable signs of independence from his repressive old mentor. Now it seems the ruling party may be up to its old tricks once more.

Anwar has called the latest charge against him a "complete fabrication," saying it's an attempt to "undermine the forces of reform and renewal." Malaysia's embattled current prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, has denied all claims of a government plot. But voters aren't buying it: a recent poll by the independent Merdeka Center showed that only 6 percent of respondents believed the allegation against Anwar was true, and 60 percent thought it was politically motivated.

Their skepticism is understandable. The scandal's timing is certainly suspicious. UMNO has never hesitated in the past to squelch dissent when it has felt threatened, and its 50-year grip on power has never been more tenuous than now. Ever since the election, the prime minister has been under pressure to step down. After the vote, Mahathir said that in a similar situation "the Japanese would have performed hara-kiri." On June 18, one of UMNO's coalition partners announced a no-confidence motion against Abdullah (though it never followed through). Then, last week, the prime minister announced plans to step down as head of the party by 2010.

Before the latest allegation was made, Anwar was poised not only to recapture power, but had also threatened to expose the myriad abuses committed during Mahathir's 22-year rule, which ended in 2003. If proved, such charges might even lead to jail time for the former leader and his cronies.

Various conspiracy theories are now circulating, including one claiming that Anwar planted the sodomy charge himself to garner public sympathy. But the consensus seems to be that the accusation is the work of Abdullah's deputy and heir, Najib Razak, a bitter rival of Anwar's. The opposition leader has publicly blamed Najib and his wife, Rosmah, for the affair, which he says is an attempt by them to ruin his chances and distract attention from their own role in a pending murder investigation.

Of course, it's too soon to say for certain whether Anwar is really being framed and, if he is, who's doing the framing. But many Malaysians fear that the truth will never come out, since the government, the police and the courts were responsible for convicting Anwar the first time round and so can't be trusted to run an honest investigation now.

The U.S. government shares that concern. "The main point for us is that the rule of law needs to stand above politics," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey on June 30, following news of the latest allegation. A decade ago Anwar's much-publicized trial was deemed a "mockery" of justice by the then U.S. Vice President Al Gore, and many Malaysians have come to agree with his verdict. Thousands have already taken to the streets in Anwar's defense.

The question now is whether Anwar's loose coalition of opposition parties can hold together in the face of this onslaught. Since the election, the coalition has struggled to implement its campaign pledges, such as to curb corruption, improve human rights and kickstart Malaysia's economy, in the states it controls. Now UMNO is showing that it will not go quietly. With Anwar once again becoming the center of a very ugly controversy and the prospect of more unrest looming, he risks losing public support if voters come to associate him with the chaos. To prevent that, Anwar must try to deflect the accusation while focusing his energy on delivering what the opposition's promised. If he fails, the public could return to UMNO in droves, ending Malaysia's fledgling experiment in democracy before it ever really got going.