Source : Malaysiakini
Sleaze and race are dominating the Permatang Pauh by-election where opposition leader and self-proclaimed prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim is fighting to return to parliament after a decade-long absence.
Anwar tells voters that if he is elected he will be just one step away from toppling the government and replacing it with a new one that is free of racial discrimination and corruption. He proposes to do that by inducing defections from the ranks of the ruling Barisan Nasional.
In response to Anwar’s challenge, the ruling coalition has unleashed money, patronage and the overwhelming control it has over the mainstream media to convince the 58,000 voters in this constituency that Anwar is simply unfit to be anything, let alone the next prime minister.
Their main weapons in this campaign are sleaze and the manipulation of racial fears to influence the voters, 70 percent of whom are Muslim-Malays.
One matter persistently used in the campaign is the charge filed against Anwar on July 26 that he allegedly sodomised former aide, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan. The trial starts on Sept 13.
In the meantime, Azlan has sworn on the Quran that Anwar had sodomised him and a video recording of the swearing, done at a leading mosque in the capital on Aug 16, is now being screened in every village and town here to influence the Malay voters.
The question voters are prompted to ask at every turn is that if Anwar, who says he is a victim of a frame-up, is not guilty then why is he afraid to swear on the Quran.
Ministers, senior ruling party leaders and even Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi have turned the knife in urging voters to ponder the matter in a desperate attempt to turn away Malays and defeat Anwar in his family stronghold.
Anwar: This is the dirtiest elections ever
Anwar has consistently said he will not swear on the Quran because it is against Islam to do so.
"I have already fulfilled my obligation as a Muslim by filing a complaint against the false accuser in the Syariah court,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of a hectic campaign schedule that starts at 6 a.m. with a walkabout at the morning market and ends well past midnight.
"They are using dirty tactics, race and making false accusations to win over the Malays," Anwar told IPS. "This is the dirtiest election ever."
Despite the use of the sodomy allegation, Malays are flocking to his campaign rallies by the thousands and enthusiastically clapping and cheering as he slams government corruption and mismanagement of the economy.
Anwar faces BN candidate Arif Shah Omar Shah and Hanafi Mamat, of the Angkatan Keadilan Insan Malaysia in the contest for the Permatang Pauh seat which fell vacant when Anwar’s wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, vacated it so he could contest.
The move is a strategy to unite the opposition under Anwar’s leadership and take on the BN government which is politically at its weakest point after suffering massively in the March 8 general election.
"This by-election has yet to deliver the quality of campaigning that can generate confident optimism in Malaysia’s future," said Bridget Welsh, an American academic observing the by-election campaign.
"The BN campaign is focused on Anwar’s character, and systematically used character assassination as a means to reduce Anwar’s majority," she said.
"Studies show that this sort of attack serves to consolidate a party's core traditional supporters, and rarely sways undecided voters," she added in an article on the campaigning.
Political analysts said it is significant that both sides have failed to move the campaign debate from political character assignation to meaningful dialogue on freedom, democracy and tolerance in a multi-ethnic society.
Civil society activists are disappointed, saying the key issue before the voters is the future of secular guarantees on which this nation was founded and how freedom has eroded on pressure from Islamic fundamentalism.
What does he mean by change?
While the government has not given voters a clear vision of the future, neither is Anwar giving them a clear idea what he means by ‘change’ - the key word in his campaign arsenal.
"Does change mean a society that puts the constitution over Syariah? Or does it mean just less corruption, more accountability," asked a prominent lawyer who declined to be identified.
"The key issues of today are religious freedom, rule of law, judicial independence and preservation of the constitution from fundamentalists," he said. "None of these major issues are raised or debated.”
Even within the opposition, by now it is clear that five months after the gains of the general election change means different things to the disparate political parties that form the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition.
Islamists are increasingly demanding a society entirely based on Syariah, while non-Muslims hunger for a return to an earlier era when secular guarantees were respected and applied to all citizens equally.
Voters at the by-election - mostly rice farmers, petty traders and factory workers - are not being asked to choose between one political programme and another, but are merely bombarded with sordid tales designed to influence their sentiments.
Race is another key factor being exploited to win voter support.
Anwar has won over the minority Chinese and Indians voters with his promise to abolish corruption, apply special rights to all who need it and treat all citizens as equal.
The government is playing on Malay fears that the Chinese, who are economically dominant, are riding on Anwar and would gain if Malays voted for the former deputy prime minister.
"He is a traitor to the Malays," said Umno vice-president Muyhiddin Yassin during a campaign rally last week.
The "Chinese would gain" theme is played over and over in the government controlled mainstream media, at political rallies, in leaflets and during "whispered" house-to-house campaign.
"If Malays fall for it then it is back to the drawing board for him," said a diplomat with a European mission, on customary condition of anonymity.
While the authorities beat the racial drums, Anwar’s camp is also selectively appealing to particular racial groups with particular messages while keeping its promise of inclusive politics and multi-racialism carefully vague and undefined.
Despite the many setbacks, Anwar is expected to win and return to parliament as the opposition leader. Beyond that, becoming prime minister is a difficult task considering the upcoming sodomy trial he faces and the coercive powers that his opponents enjoy.
Nevertheless, the impact of a convincing victory for Anwar would be felt across the country and raise hopes for a new Malaysia without race and discrimination, after five decades of dominance by Umno
The results are also bound to echo across much of the world where Anwar is seen as a leading moderate Muslim leader who is able to successfully marry Islam with secular democracy.