Malaysian Opposition Firebrand Anwar Ibrahim Chats

It's been a tumultuous year in Malaysia. In March, Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister jailed 10 years ago on suspected corruption and sodomy charges, led the opposition to a surprisingly strong showing in parliamentary elections. Since then, he's been steadily working to fracture and bring down the ruling coalition by luring away minor parties. Late last month his plan seemed to go off the rails once more, when new sodomy charges were brought against him by a former volunteer in his office. Then last week embattled Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi—widely blamed for the government's sagging fortunes—announced that he'd hand over power in mid-2010 to a deputy, Najib Razak, who's been linked to the murder of a Mongolian model. Najib has denied the allegations. Anwar spoke by telephone with NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Kent about the charges against him and Malaysia's chaotic politics. Excerpts:

KENT: What do you make of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi ' s plans to yield power in two years?
ANWAR: Umno [Abdullah's party] remains in a state of denial as to the credibility of its leadership. Having lost the popular vote in [West] Malaysia, the party had yet to come to terms with the loss of its hegemony. UMNO leaders are far more concerned with protecting their own parochial interests while the nation continues to suffer from their failed economic and social policies. This has given rank-and-file UMNO members ample reason to throw their support to the opposition.

The government has again made allegations of sexual misconduct against you. What is your response?
It's disgusting of them to repeat this, but there is a difference from last time. [Now] I don't cast aspersions on the entire government machinery or on the prime minister. I've no evidence to link him to fabricating evidence, but [Najib's] office appears to be involved. I also have evidence on the fabrication and suppression of evidence in my 1999 trial involving the current inspector general of police and the attorney general.

So you believe the charge against you was prompted by the fact that you are about to make public new evidence against these officials?
Yes. The sodomy allegation may have been prompted because the police chief and the attorney general are privy to my initial complaints against them [from 1999]. The former volunteer in my office who made these latest sodomy allegations has been part of Najib's apparatus, and we have evidence to that effect.

Malaysian politics seems at a turning point. How do you see events unfolding?
There is no way UMNO can stay together with such major divisions and falling confidence in Abdullah. The relationship between UMNO and its coalition parties is at the lowest ebb, and this has created a power vacuum. Malaysians are coming to see us as a formidable force, an alternative.

Do you think you can win power through the ballot box?
In the past elections, vote rigging was massive. And of course the ruling coalition utilized to the fullest their media monopoly. But we now control five of Malaysia's 13 states, our reach via the Internet is growing massively and we are winning over thousands of the people in East Malaysia whose votes essentially keep the government in power. Yes, we have problems with vote rigging and with the government's control of the media, but there's a limit to what a weak government can do. No dictator or authoritarian leader, like Mugabe and the rest, will surrender easily. But I trust in the wisdom of Malaysians.

Your multiethnic Peoples Pact alliance includes socialist and Islamic parties. How hard is it to keep them under the same umbrella?
Since the election we've shown we can work together. The management of the states we now run is far superior. With any suggestion of irregularities, the leadership takes immediate action. We have no problem helping the poor rural folks, and we had no problem with the Muslim Malay community when we decided to support a big, modern pig-farming program in Selangor state.

When do you think you ' ll become prime minister?
Patience is a virtue. That will depend on the support of members of Parliament [and] the Malaysian public.

Prime Minister Abdullah ' s government has won international praise for making the hard decision to cut fuel subsidies. Why did you oppose that?
There is no inkling that they understand the impact it had on the poor. Ours is not just a populist position. I'm in favor of a market economy and I want to discard the government's heavily interventionist New Economic Policy. International economists may not appreciate just how our domestic economy, particularly the poorest segments, could be adversely affected.

How would you describe Malaysia ' s place in the world?
Malaysia has a great story. Not only are we a multiracial country and an emerging economy, but we could also become a beacon of democracy and human rights in the Muslim world. We are a majority Muslim country and, like Turkey, for example, can remind the world that there is no incompatibility between Islam and democracy. We can show the world that Muslims can live alongside Christians and Hindus and Buddhists, and demonstrate the enormous benefits that come from mutual acceptance and respect. Where in the world do you have a population that can speak Malay, English, Tamil and Chinese? Where do you have so many faiths thriving together? We can be a great example as a small developing country.

Malaysian Opposition Firebrand Anwar Ibrahim Chats | World