Two recent elections have significantly strengthened the hand of Anwar’s opposition coalition, and have created the possibility for the first change of power in the country’s history. In March 2008, the opposition increased its representation from 19 to 82 of 222 parliament seats, which put the opposition within 30 seats of unseating the ruling Barisan National coalition. The March election was the first major challenge to the BN and was called ‘the tidal wave’ by an opposition leader.
The second political tidal wave to sweep Malaysia was the August election where opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim captured the Penang seat by a landslide. The seat was previously held by his wife during his decade-long political exile, and he was expected to win the election. Anwar received 31,195 votes, nearly double his opponent’s 15,524. This election victory served to invigorate the opposition camp in its drive to oust the ruling coalition.
Anwar once sat as Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and was the expected successor of then- Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. However in 1998 he was sacked and charged with corruption and sodomy. He served 6 years in jail for crimes which he has always denied. In 2004 the Malaysian Supreme Court overturned the sodomy charges against him which allowed him to plan his resurgence in politics. In his absence, his wife, Wan Azizah, held his seat through the March victory, when Waves of Change for Malaysia Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has brought the prospect of democratic reform to the forefront of Malaysian politics. she stepped down to allow him to resume his post.
Anwar’s uphill battle continued in the most recent election when new sodomy allegations were made against him by a 23-year old former aide. Although largely seen as politically motivated, many feared that the allegations would hurt Ibrahim in a conservative society where sodomy is illegal. The results of the election repudiate those fears and show a strong desire amongst Malaysians for change and a new agenda.
Anwar is seen as a reformer and is supported by the U.S. government. He favors a more balanced budget and hopes to increase Malaysian economic competitiveness and to encourage international investment. Currently, high inflation and a relatively large government deficit hinder Malaysian economic expansion. He also proposes dismantling the 37-year old affirmative action program that favors Malays over ethnic Chinese and Indians. In its place, he suggests a socioeconomic affirmative action program.
The U.S. places its hopes for economic progress in Anwar. Anwar, however, continues to face difficulties from both inside and outside his coalition. His rainbow coalition is comprised of liberals, Chinese parties, and Islamic parties which are often united merely in their opposition to the government and not in their agendas. The Islamic parties favor greater implementation of shariah law, while the Chinese desire greater inclusion and representation of the Chinese minority. The ruling BN coalition will likely try to counter Anwar’s appeal with a highly populist budget that will likely increase the deficit merely for political gain.
The opposition set September 16th as the deadline to oust the current government, yet it is uncertain what lies in Malasyia’s future. With two political tsunamis behind them, change may now come in the form of smaller waves eroding the power base the BN has built over fifty years of dominance.