An opposition leader's acquittal will help the country end dirty politics and focus on the future.
By BRIDGET WELSH
Yesterday's acquittal of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on the charge of sodomy ends two and a half years of a bad sequel. After being convicted once in 2000 on the same charge and subsequently exonerated on appeal, this time the court found that the prosecution failed to prove its case.
The decision is a moment of sanity after three years of political turmoil since the March 2008 polls. That election effectively broke the stranglehold on power of the incumbent Barisan Nasional, the National Front coalition, which lost its two-thirds majority in parliament. After the loss, the ruling United Malays National Organization seemed to go back to its mode of personal-attack politics, as practiced by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The new accusation against Mr. Anwar also signaled a return to the ways of the Mahathir era.
The acquittal is a sign that Malaysia is moving forward and a win for several key players. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak can run in the upcoming election as a reformer who has allowed the rule of law and fairness to prevail, giving him an opportunity to earn his own democratic mandate. Mr. Anwar is free to focus on leading the opposition. The judiciary can stand tall with the credit that when the final decision was reached, it was made on the basis of the evidence rather than politics. And with the closure of yet another sordid trial, Malaysia can showcase its successes rather than being endlessly associated with sex scandals.
The price the country has paid during the drawn-out trial has been high. The Mahathir mode of politics has been bringing down Malaysia's leaders. It certainly undermined the current ones. Mr. Najib, otherwise thought to be a sound, problem-oriented leader, was tarred by the perceived brush of engaging in a political conspiracy, which he denies. Mr. Anwar's personal reputation was hammered.
The conduct of the trial, particularly involving the submission of contradictory testimony and flawed evidence, threatened to discredit the courts. At best, the current case was a distraction. At worst, it revealed the inadequacies of moving the nation's politics into more rational, reasoned discourse. Overall, Malaysians were being done a disservice with attention focused on gutter politics, rather than real problems.
The public's attention will now thankfully move to the next general elections, likely to be held this year. The stakes are high given that the elections will be the most hotly contested in Malaysia's history. Over half the seats are highly competitive. Each side is sure to use the trial for political capital, though the verdict has now made the playing field more level. The mass political support around Mr. Anwar shows that he remains a political force, with iconic charisma, tenacity and staying power. For Mr. Najib, the acquittal shows he is willing to engage his opponent in a fairer fight, and stand on his record.
That's an improvement, considering until yesterday, the Anwar trial had served to reinforce the political base of the two camps. Mr. Anwar was channeling the attacks into anger toward Mr. Najib's administration and Mr. Najib was consolidating support among his party, many of whom considered the best strategy for victory was to sideline the opposition leader. The polarized electorate was increasingly moving to the extremes. Both camps have been tapping into the anger and anxiety, in a politics mobilized by personal attacks.
In moving forward, both sides will be forced to change tactics and hope their bases will follow. Mr. Najib faces a particularly difficult battle of convincing the more reactionary elements of his party that he has acted in UMNO's interests. He has to contend with those in his party who compare him unfavorably to Mr. Mahathir and mistakenly believe that the only way forward is to repeat the outdated tactics of the past. Mr. Najib has to be able to show that the acquittal was a sign of strength, rather than one of weakness. Mr. Anwar on his part has to extend his reach beyond his base, and convince skeptics that his politics is not just about his persona or about being victimized.
The battle will hinge on the middle ground, since undecided voters make up as much as 30% of the electorate. That means the government needs to focus on how to strengthen ethnic relations, create jobs, reduce income inequalities, boost wages and bring in investment, especially in this more uncertain global economy. Whoever the winner is, the acquittal opens up the ways for him to focus on Malaysia's future, rather than endure a rerun of its political past.