Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim faces trial this week on sodomy charges for the second time in a turbulent political career that has put him within striking distance of seizing power.
The charges, leveled by a young man who worked in his office, threaten to end Anwar’s career which he resurrected after being sacked as deputy prime minister and jailed on separate sodomy and corruption charges a decade ago.
It also jeopardizes his opposition alliance, which in last year’s polls snatched a third of the seats in parliament and five states from a shell-shocked Barisan Nasional coalition which has ruled Malaysia for half a century.
“There’s a small chance he’ll be acquitted, but a very, very small chance,” said political analyst James Chin from Monash University in Malaysia.
The charges which carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail.
“I think the trial will be dragged out for a long time to damage his reputation and also to slow down the opposition,” Chin said.
The case, which Anwar says is a conspiracy to neutralize the threat he poses to the government, could also seriously damage Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who came to office this year with promises of reform.
“This is a no-win situation for Najib. If Anwar gets thrown into prison, he looks bad, if he’s acquitted, he also looks bad. The question is how to limit the damage,” Chin said. “I suspect he’ll be found guilty and let off with a fine. If Anwar goes to jail, the opposition will be stronger because Anwar will be seen as a martyr.”
A survey last year found just 11 percent of Malaysians believed the accusations that Anwar sodomized Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan, who was then a 23-year-old volunteer at his office.
Anwar, 61, spent six years in jail until 2004, when the nation’s highest court overturned the sodomy conviction. After a few years of recuperation, he emerged to build the most successful opposition force the country has seen.
He is the undisputed glue in the Pakatan Rakyat, an alliance of three unlikely partners — his own multiracial Keadilan party, the conservative Islamic party PAS and the liberal Chinese-based Democratic Action Party.
Contrary to fears the opposition could spin apart if Anwar is convicted and jailed, leading Southeast Asia academic Bridget Welsh said that at least initially it could galvanize its supporters.
“But the issue is long term, it’s the question of who would then lead the opposition and that raises certain types of questions,” Welsh said,.
Anwar, 61, says the case against him is deeply flawed and remains defiant about his prospects and that of his party.
“There is no question of the Pakatan Rakyat continuing, surviving. It will continue to defend the rights of the people and challenge the government, gaining strength from any conviction made against me,” he said last week. “In fact, I think a conviction against me will enrage a lot of people. I am ready for all eventualities and prepared to face attacks — expect the best and prepare for the worst.”