The intense global scrutiny brought upon Malaysia’s government over the fate of flight MH370 has tossed a wild card into its controversial efforts to send opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim back to jail.
Sentenced to five years in jail, Anwar, free on appeal, would be expelled from parliament if the conviction holds — a severe blow for a fractious opposition that has enjoyed unprecedented success by uniting around his star power.
But Anwar feels the negative global attention due to MH370 could force the government to think twice.
“(MH370) certainly will have a bearing,” said Anwar, 66, when asked by AFP whether concern over international reaction to his jailing could make his political foes pause.
“The entire radar is on Malaysia — that it is opaque, semi-authoritarian, no transparency, no accountability.”
Unaccustomed to answering for itself at home, Malaysia’s government has faced a barrage of international criticism for the unexplained loss of the plane with 239 people aboard, and a stumbling response.
Anwar’s opposition says the saga has exposed institutional decay and incompetence in a government dominated since 1957 by the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which is widely accused of rampant cronyism and corruption.
A former deputy premier with UMNO, Anwar has cultivated strong friendships in Washington, where he is lauded for his calls for reform, and the US State Department has questioned the March 7 ruling against him.
However, President Barack Obama does not plan to see Anwar when he is in Kuala Lumpur next week, though US officials have not ruled out a lower-level meeting. It was not clear whether Obama would raise Anwar’s case with Malaysia’s government.
“Jailing Anwar will be a big mistake, as it will galvanise people around his struggle. The last time they did that we saw the biggest protests ever,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of Malaysian public policy think-tank IDEAS.
Anwar was sensationally ousted from the government in 1998 after losing a power struggle, and his subsequent jailing for six years on sodomy and corruption charges was widely considered politically motivated.
The biggest protests in Malaysia’s history resulted, and Anwar emerged as a formidable opposition campaigner after the sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004.
Jailing Anwar would heap further pressure on the government and make it “a laughing stock”, Wan Saiful said.
Current Prime Minister Najib Razak, a relative moderate, has consistently sought international favour, but is constrained by UMNO conservatives who deeply fear Anwar and the political threat he poses.
In elections last year, the opposition won a majority of Malaysia’s popular vote for the first time, though UMNO’s coalition clung to control of parliament.
The March ruling came just two weeks before Anwar was to stand for an assembly seat in Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state.
The seat was seen as a springboard to becoming the state’s chief minister — a powerful soapbox ahead of the next general election due by 2018 — but the ruling disqualified Anwar.
Influential conservatives may gamble that the long-term gains from jailing Anwar are worth any overseas backlash, said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia politics researcher at Singapore Management University.
“There clearly are people in that party who want Anwar in jail,” she said.
“The focus is the domestic arena and what they feel they can get away with.”
UMNO is widely believed to influence the courts in sensitive cases, though Najib’s government denies this.
No date for an appeal has yet been set.
Anwar, who brought tens of thousands to the streets after last year’s disputed elections, warned of a “major battle” if he is jailed.
“You can take me, beat me up — you can shoot me if you want to — but I’m not going to take this lying down,” he said, hinting demonstrations may be called.
Multi-ethnic Malaysia enjoyed rapid economic growth and rising living standards over recent decades while a controversial UMNO formula reserves political supremacy for majority Muslim Malays.
But voters have increasingly rebelled over endemic corruption, slowing growth, and impatience with UMNO’s authoritarian tactics and divisive racial politics.
Since last year’s elections, Najib’s government has shelved reform promises and brought sedition charges or other pressure against opposition figures and reform advocates.