Saturday, September 20, 2008

Anwar throws down the gauntlet

Southeast Asia
Sep 20, 2008

Anwar throws down the gauntlet
By Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian politics is heading for a showdown with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim demanding that the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi subject itself to a confidence vote in parliament by September 23.

Anwar's demand comes as a shock to the ruling Barisan Nasional or National Front (NF) coalition which has ruled without interruption for five decades, growing complacent until the March 8 general election in which voters gave the Anwar-led opposition 82 seats in parliament, just 30 seats short of the simple majority needed to form the government.

The NF coalition also lost five states to the opposition sending shockwaves through the political establishment.

Since then, Anwar has been persuading NF members to defect

with a view to forming a simple-majority government, despite worries that such tactics were "unethical" and "immoral" and the fear that once down that road there is no turning back.

On April 1, Anwar had solemnly vowed to achieve defections and topple the government by September 16. But parliament is in Ramadan recess until October 13 and the government appears to be taking refuge in this fact.

Anwar, who faces a sodomy trial starting on September 22, said on Thursday that he now has the numbers gathered from among reformist lawmakers who are secretly committed to toppling the government.

"Abdullah's days are numbered, the people truly want a change," Anwar told Inter Press Service. "They want equality, justice and a democracy accountable to the people."

However, an upset and angry Abdullah has dismissed Anwar as a liar and impostor and has alleged that he does not have the numbers he claims. Abdullah has dismissed Anwar's constant refrain of toppling the government as the act of a desperate individual making empty promises.

Reacting within hours of Anwar's ultimatum, Abdullah said he would not order parliament to convene because it has just gone into recess. "Whatever no-confidence resolutions - they can to it after parliament opens," he said.

Political insiders say the outright rejection is a signal that a major crackdown is about to be ordered.

Most alarming to civil society leaders is the warning Abdullah issued on September 17 that Anwar's grab for power is a threat to national security and would endanger the economy by affecting the flow of foreign investment.

"I will do what I have to do to protect and economy and save the country," Abdullah said, sparking immediate fears that a major crackdown against opposition lawmakers and human-rights advocates would soon be unleashed invoking the tough Internal Security Act (ISA).

Already the government has detained a prominent lawmaker and a blogger, both allied with Anwar, under the ISA that allows for indefinite detention without trial.

"He [Abdullah] is mixing up what are essentially issues of democracy, freedom and the rule of law with national security. The use of the ISA to harass and detain duly elected political opponents is a grave transgression of the law and its continued use would further erode confidence in the current government and exacerbate political instability," Anwar said.

Anwar said Malaysians and investors were supportive of comprehensive reforms, including judicial independence, a free media, a professional police force and investor-friendly laws.

Anwar has been detained under ISA laws twice, once as a radical student leader in the 1970s and again in 1988 after he crossed swords with then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had him charged with sodomy. He spent six years in jail and was acquitted of the charge in 2004 by the country's highest court.

"It appears everything is heading for a climax and a major security crackdown is possible," a prominent lawyer who did not want to be identified said. "I myself am a target," he explained.

Investors have been pulling money out of Malaysian stocks since the March election results, fearing political uncertainties would be prolonged. The Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange has dropped below the 1,000-point resistance level, largely because of political fears but also because of the global financial crisis.

"The recent developments coming together add a new and dangerous dimension to the country's troubled politics. It gives a clear impression that a climax is rushing up," the lawyer said.

Anwar is not rebuffed by Abdullah's rejection of his demand to convene a special session of parliament.

"The opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition will convene an emergency meeting to discuss our next course," Anwar said in a statement on Thursday. He also said he may seek an audience with King Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin who, although a constitutional monarch, has powers to convene parliament, dismiss a prime minister and invite a person enjoying the confidence of a majority in parliament to form a new government.

However, the king has yet to be convinced that Anwar has a majority of lawmakers behind him.

According to constitutional expert Shad Faruqi, the issue can only be settled on the parliament floor through a confidence vote. "Otherwise, he can go to the palace and have tea," Faruqi said.

(Inter Press Service)

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