By Ioannis Gatsiounis
With the only viable opposition party all but knocked out of the picture and the ruling National Front (BN) promising reform but carrying on its brand of feudalism with impunity - in other words, just when the political climate in Malaysia seemed to reach a new nadir - things got interesting. On Thursday morning in Putrajaya, a federal court in a 2-1 decision stunned the nation by overturning the sodomy conviction of Malaysia's most famous political prisoner, Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar in 1998 was sacked as deputy premier by then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and subsequently jailed on corruption and sodomy charges. The debacle touched off mass protests and gave rise to a reform movement centering on justice and human rights, as many Malaysians believed that Anwar, 57, was framed because he posed a political threat to Mahathir.
Anwar had already served his term for the corruption conviction and was down to his last appeal for his nine-year sodomy sentence when Judge Abdul Hamid Mohamad told the courtroom on Thursday, "We are not prepared to uphold the conviction. We therefore ... set aside the conviction and the sentence."
Now, beneath the euphoria and bewilderment - in a nation in which the courts are reputedly a puppet of the government - two burning questions persist: How will Anwar's release shape Malaysia's political landscape, and second, does it suggest a new dawn of reform in Malaysian politics?
When Mahathir's hand-picked successor Abdullah Badawi took over from the long-ruling Mahathir last October, speculation surfaced as to whether Abdullah might release Anwar. It was just as soon concluded that releasing the charismatic Anwar would be political suicide for Abdullah, who was - some say still is - struggling to form a political base within his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
On Wednesday, however, Abdullah said he would not meddle in the courts' decisions. And it appears he did not. So stunned was even Anwar at the fact that he went out of his way to say, "I must thank Badawi for the decision."
To some observers such cap-tipping is a priori, as Abdullah had already assured the public that the judiciary was independent and the government would not tamper with court decisions. But, said Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, deputy president of the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM), "There's a fundamental defect in making this assurance." He added that while Abdullah deserves some credit for not tampering with a court ruling that just might seal his political fate, "We cannot say the rule of law prevails in Malaysia as of yet."
Added a longtime commentator: "There remain so many problems in the judiciary." Those seeking reform, he said, cannot afford to bask in this decision.
But at least, said the leader of the opposition, Democratic Action Party (DAP) chairman Lim Kit Siang, "It reminds us not to despair in our fight for democracy."
And with Anwar's release, that fight for democracy likely got a major jolt. Anwar assured supporters outside the courthouse: "I'm committed to the struggle with the opposition parties that are committed to reform. I'm starting it right away."
Under Malaysian law, he will need to wait five years to seek political office because of his corruption conviction. But the message is clear: he will not allow himself to be sublated by the party that sought to destroy him.
Whether he links up with Keadilan (National Justice Party), the party that was formed in the wake of his ouster, is not known. But it is thought that his release will "breathe new life directly and indirectly into opposition parties", said Hassan Ali of the conservative Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
UMNO officials were not immediately available for comment. But most observers say the decision puts UMNO against the wall. "It puts pressure on UMNO to stand up to the issues they promised to address" when Abdullah became premier, Lim said. Among those issues were corruption, transparency, accountability and good governance.
Some say Anwar's release may cause further fissures within UMNO, with some members aligning themselves with Anwar and others behind UMNO Supreme Council member Razaleigh Hamzah, who unsuccessfully challenged Abdullah for the party presidency in July.
At cafes around Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, some Malaysians saw Anwar's release as an omen for Malaysian politics. "Let him stay in jail where he deserves to be," said Mohamad Yusuf Bachok, 52. "His release will only divide."
Indeed, the Anwar debacle embarrassed and exhausted many Malaysians, and finds them averse to change. If Anwar can't reverse this trend, needless to say his political comeback will be over before it gets started.
Columnist M G G Pillai said Anwar's release is nothing to fear. "A realignment of forces is good for Malaysia."
And a realignment is what he foresees. Part of the problem, Pillai said, is that UMNO has become an Islamic party, trying to outduel PAS for that title. "Both have talked up cutting off the hands of thieves - the only difference is UMNO will cauterize it and PAS use the blade directly," he quipped.
While Muslims here, most all Malays, make up 60% of the population, UMNO and PAS have alienated many Malay voters because Malay identity is not exclusively Islamic. It is in some ways distinct, with a unique history that Islam has confused.
By contrast, Keadilan has always played more to Malay rather than Islamic sensibilities. Anwar did spearhead an Islamic revival in Malaysia in the early 1980s, but his appeal has transcended ethnic and religious lines.
As recently as Wednesday, Anwar and his former party were all but forgotten. His final appeal on Thursday was seen as a foregone conclusion, considering the courts' corrupt history; few Malaysians were even tuning in. As well, Keadilan was virtually buried in the March parliamentary elections, with only Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail winning a seat in parliament. Anwar's battle back into politics will no doubt be an arduous one.
Anwar, in neck brace and wheelchair, was expected to fly to Munich immediately for treatment for his back, an injury he said was aggravated by a beating inflicted by Malaysia's former police chief after his jailing in 1998. When Anwar appeared in court the next day with a black eye, Mahathir said Anwar beat himself up. The police chief later confessed to the crime.
After his release on Thursday, Anwar told reporters, "I bear no malice against [Mahathir]. Let him retire." Mahathir retired last October. Anwar's plans are a little different. (is there any arrangement Mr. Anwar???)
Ioannis Gatsiounis is a New York native who has worked in Indonesia as a freelance foreign correspondent for various US dailies and co-hosted a weekly political/cultural radio call-in show. He now lives in Malaysia.