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Next GE could be Anwar's last one

Publication Date : 03-09-2012


Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has floated the idea of retiring from politics if the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition which he leads fails to take over Putrajaya, the seat of the federal government, in the general election due in the next few months.

He first spoke about his retirement plans in a July interview with the Financial Times and repeated it at another occasion on August 18, to the consternation of his supporters and critics.

"If we don't get the mandate, then we should give space for the second-liners in leadership," he said during an online forum broadcast on YouTube.

As a dominant figure in Malaysian politics, his absence from the scene would be felt and would certainly trigger some realignment in the opposition ranks.

Political observers may dismiss his remarks as just another of his posturing in the lead-up to the election to gain voter sympathy. But his talk of retirement may have been dictated by the political reality that he is confronted with.

First, the former deputy prime minister is running out of time. At 65, he is not as agile a politician as he was before he was sacked by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1998 and later imprisoned for corruption and sodomy.

He was released from jail in 2004 after the sodomy conviction was overturned, and returned to Parliament quickly. The coming general election will be his last shot at the premiership if he can lead his coalition to topple the Barisan Nasional, which has ruled for more than half a century. By the time the 14th general election is held in 2017, he will be 70, and likely too old to lead the coalition.

Second, over the next few years, the opposition leader will be preoccupied with defending himself in court against a lawsuit.

The prosecution has filed an appeal against his acquittal on a second sodomy charge by the High Court in January.

After the third rally for electoral reforms by Bersih in April, he was detained and charged in May with inciting an illegal street protest.

If he is convicted in both cases, he will be behind bars for many years. Even if he is acquitted of all the charges, Anwar would have been busy attending court hearings that would leave him with very little time for party work. It would also sap his energy and would render him less effective as a political leader.

Third, his popularity ratings have declined compared to his arch rival, Prime Minister Najib Razak. Anwar is a popular leader with charisma, but many surveys have shown that voters are not as keen on him being prime minister. For example, in a survey by the University of Malaya in January, some 27 per cent of Malaysians see Najib as the more capable leader in managing the country's economy compared to Anwar, who scored 21 per cent. Part of the reason for this is his chequered record when he was an Umno superstar and deputy prime minister until he was sacked.

Fourth, his credibility as a leader has suffered in recent years. One glaring incident was his promise that he would march to Putrajaya to claim his place on Sept 16, 2008, when enough Barisan Nasional MPs would have crossed the floor to give his coalition a simple majority in Parliament. The much-promised switch never took place, to the embarrassment of him and his PR colleagues.

Another example was his failure to announce the opposition's shadow Cabinet line-up as he had promised in 2009.

Finally, his critics have questioned his leadership of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and PR.

The sodomy charges against him and the alleged sex video purported to involve him have sullied his reputation as a leader, even though the courts have cleared him and no conclusive evidence has been found to prove his involvement in the scandal.

The Economist, in an assessment of him, said in its Jan 14 issue: "Although Mr Anwar remains a charismatic figure and a forceful speaker, his reputation has been tarnished. That won't matter to his acolytes, but at 64, he also seems a distant and untrustworthy figure to many younger Malaysians."

Another observation is that he has not allowed a second generation of leaders to develop within PR, hence preventing the emergence of younger opposition figures who could challenge him in the future.

Given the reality that he is facing, Anwar may choose to step aside after the election if PR fails to unseat the Barisan Nasional. But his critics think otherwise, given the man's resilience and commitment to politics.

He may want to stay on, thinking he is still needed because of his role as the glue that unites the disparate forces of the coalition and as the politician who brought together the secular Democratic Action Party and the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia into one entity.

Although such a role is widely acknowledged, a disastrous election outcome may spark a rethink among his coalition partners, some of whom may decide to go their separate ways. If that happens, Anwar may indeed have to pack up and retire a disappointed man.


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