Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Sodomy II: Najib's big burden

There is no doubt that the present sodomy case against Anwar will have a great impact on Malaysia when pushed to its expected conclusion. Domestically we can expect tremendous socio-political forces to be generated while internationally Malaysia's reputation will take a severe beating.

Let me get straight to the point and say the prosecutors have already lost the case in the court of public opinion even though the trial has barely started. They have not only lost it but relinquished it lock, stock and barrel. The international press has already disseminated widely that Anwar is being politically prosecuted for being a danger to BN which is now practicing outdated political thuggery to maintain its power.

Will the prosecution pull a rabbit out of the hat and convince the public in a dazzling display of convincing evidence? It appears that the only "rabbit" in their hat is some dubious DNA evidence purportedly extracted from the accuser's rectum. But DNA is no longer the 'wonder evidence' that dazzled the public in its early days.

No, with the ease that DNA evidence can be faked it will do nothing to convince the public especially in a politically charged environment where all parties involved from collection, storage and analysis are under the control of the ruling party.

najib-anwar-sodomy-2mahathir-3The question that the prosecution will struggle to prove is that the DNA sample was indeed extracted from the accuser's rectum and even if that can be settled the next question will be how did it get there?

The Umno president's prize

So we can expect a strong political backlash from the public perception that all the apparatus of government have been subjugated to political expediency to convict an opposition leader to cut short the political competition. As prime minister, Najib Abdul Razak can hardly wash his hands off it any more than the head chef of a restaurant can deny responsibility for the quality of the food.

The backlash from a disgusted public is bound to weaken Najib whose popularity will plummet. Nevertheless he can ride roughshod over public disgust as the general election is not imminent until March 2013. This is not a problem as Malaysia is a pseudo-democracy but the bigger question is whether he can survive as Umno president in the interim.

To understand this we must elaborate a little on Malaysia's unique political system in which the prime minister is not elected but is automatically the prize of the Umno president. This naturally leads to intense competition for the top party post from ambitious hopefuls.

The post of Umno president is supported by the supreme council members, division and branch leaders who make up what is loosely termed the Umno warlords. These warlords have no firm loyalty to any personality but are loyal to the flow of patronage and can shift their allegiance to the highest bidder. The Umno president may be the biggest distributor of patronage but he must be constantly looking over his shoulders for political rivals that are ever ready to take his place and claim the premiership.

A weak Umno president will soon be pushed out and we need look no further than Abdullah Badawi who was ignominiously forced to shorten his term considerably after BN's losses at the 12th general election. Najib can ride roughshod over public opinion but can he fend off his political rivals after being weakened by Sodomy II?

Mahathir's advantages.

To answer this question we must go back to Sodomy I and its effect on the Umno strongman of the day, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir was a strong-willed and authoritarian leader who was probably the strongest Umno president ever at his prime. He ran a tight ship and ruled with a healthy dollop of fear aided by his readiness to use the ISA. Judicious use of this draconian law reinforced its value as a weapon of fear unlike the misuse of it during Syed Hamid's bumbling tenure as Home Minister which almost turned it into a laughing stock.

mahathir-4In Mahathir's days, the mass media was even more tightly controlled and the Internet was at its infancy which gave the government a near monopoly of information which Najib would envy now. Although corruption was rampant it was mostly conducted behind the scenes hidden from public eyes by a compliant press.
What strengthened Mahathir even more was the roaring tiger economy in the 1990's with a roll of strong 8% GDP growth repeated over consecutive years. The robust economy helped to gloss over many of Mahathir's excesses.

Politically, BN enjoyed a one party system with a weak and fragmented opposition which could barely dream of denying BN its customary two-third majority in parliament. The population voted along ethnic and religious lines with the Malays threatened with losing their privileges and the non-Malays threatened with racial and religious fears. Peddling such fears is far less effective nowadays.

Having fended off a challenge by Tengku Razaleigh, there was no creditable rival to Mahathir when Sodomy I was played out, nobody jostling with him for the seat of power.

Neither were there any personal scandals which could be used against Mahathir. He was strong, he was tough and from his perch he wielded the powerful apparatus of state against Anwar to destroy him personally and politically in 1998. The crude parody of justice did not convince the public. The Malays were aghast by his action which generated a strong tide of anti-Mahathir feeling.

Despite this, BN won the 1999 election with its two-third majority intact but lost the state of Terengganu in addition to Kelantan. But the result was a crushing blow to Mahathir with Umno's share of the Malay vote felling to 49% and PAS the chief beneficiary. It was the non-Malays who saved Mahathir.

Surely a strongman like Mahathir can survive this and complete his term especially one who successfully guided Malaysia out of the 1997 economic crisis? But this was not to be. Painfully aware that Umno's relationship with the Malays was broken, the Umno warlords imposed on Mahathir to make a graceful exit. Mahathir did so on his terms. He announced his resignation with a long 14 months lead time and appointed Abdullah Badawi as his successor.

Najib's burden

Now let us look at Najib. It is apparent that Najib lacks most of the socio-economic and political advantages that Mahathir enjoyed more than a decade ago.

Politically the opposition is much stronger now. They have coalesced into a workable coalition and are ready to challenge BN for the seat of power, a far cry from just trying to grab as many seats as possible.

Non-Malays have lost their fear of PAS and inter-ethnic tensions have dissipated, meaning that the two powerful weapons that used to work with devastating efficiency to garner votes from the non-Malays have been lost.

People are now far more connected than a decade ago with the proliferation of the online world with its news, blogs, discussion groups, social networking sites, video, e-mail, mobile phones and SMS to challenge the controlled mainstream media. They are also more demanding of social justice and good governance since the 12th general election.

Economically, times are challenging with the country trying to pull itself out of a global economic slowdown. Rising cost of living coupled with the removal of subsidies and the planned introduction of GST next year means that Najib treads a fine line with little leeway to throw out economic goodies. The negative publicity generated from the Anwar trial will also hit the economy by discouraging foreign and local investments.

Najib also faces opposition from within his ranks with his 1Malaysia campaign. Elements of his party who are more comfortable with Malay hegemony are less than supportive with reports of sabotage and rumours of a power struggle involving his deputy with disagreement over 1Malaysia as the battleground. Umno's willingness to associate with the rightwing Perkasa and lack of political will to rein in Malay newspapers' racist rants have not helped Najib.

The country is inundated with one scandal after another and awash negative publicity such as PKFZ, the theft of jet engines, Perak power grab, Teoh Beng Hock's death, Allah controversy, caning of women and even a submarine which cannot dive. Najib has also not been able to shake off a negative association with a murdered Mongolian national which makes him vulnerable.

With an expected public backlash following the conclusion of Sodomy II, the excuse to push out Najib may well be the real fear of losing political power. A prime minister who has lost public support must make way for another who is less despised to give new hope to the people. This must of course be done before the next general election but is unlikely to happen without a damaging power struggle.

Najib can be saved if PR breaks up following Anwar's imprisonment. But this is not likely to happen as the coalition has grown beyond the need for Anwar's physical presence to hold it together.

The outlook is ominous for Najib. If a leader as strong as Mahathir had to shorten his term after Sodomy I with all the socio-economic and political factors on his side, what will Sodomy II do to Najib who has none of the advantages?

Does the phrase "digging your own grave" comes to mind?

courtesy of Malaysian Mirror

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