The handing down of a "not guilty" verdict on sodomy charges against Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim indicates a tectonic shift in Malaysian politics. Following a previous overturned conviction on a related charge, the immediate outcome of Anwar’s judicial decision is significant, but its longer-term implications could be profound.
In a country in which the judiciary has been used as a political tool since the late 1980s, the not guilty decision by Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah went against expectations, even by Ibahim himself. Although the decision was widely viewed as a vindication of Anwar, it also reflects a possible break in political interference in the judiciary and, in turn, a relative weakening of what was a high level of central political control.
The weakening of political influence over the judiciary will be significant if there are challenges to forthcoming electoral preselection, Malaysia’s gerrymandered electoral boundaries or outcomes for the elections due next year. Malaysia’s judiciary came under direct political influence in 1988 when former Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad sacked judges that did not support his political claims and appointed sympathetic senior judges.
The judicial decision’s qualified language reflected the necessity of judges to continue to watch their backs from continued political attack. The judge said: "The court at this stage could not with 100% certainty exclude the possibility that the [DNA] sample is not compromised. Therefore it is not safe to rely on the sample."
That is, the judge threw out the fabricated political charge, but did so in a way that implied a technical deficiency rather than denying the alleged facts of the case. This followed the judge having previously said that evidence given by the complainant in support of the charges was believable. The ruling then leaves Anwar open to continued personal attacks, including a potential appeal against the decision by the prosecutor.
A Malaysian government statement said the ruling proved that "Malaysia has an independent judiciary and this verdict proves that the government does not hold sway over judges' decisions". It went on to try to build political capital from the decision by claiming that the decision reflected "the current wave of bold democratic reforms introduced" by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
It is not clear whether this is putting the best face on a bad outcome or a bid by Razak to put distance between himself and his predecessors in the face of a possible election defeat.
Malaysia’s last elections, in 2008, for the first time saw the ruling National Front drop below its two-thirds "super-majority", with opposition parties gaining 37% of parliamentary seats. The National Front, combining the United Malay National Organisation, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, as well as smaller parties, has ruled Malaysia since federation in 1963.
Anwar will receive a considerable political boost from the not guilty verdict and may now start to challenges the National Front’s historic dominance of Malaysian politics. However, Anwar sits as the nominal leader of a fractured People’s Alliance opposition, including the historically anti-Chinese Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, its Singapore-derived ethnic Chinese partner Democratic Action Party, and Anwar’s smaller People’s Justice Party.
With a historically compromised political process and a judiciary starting to edge away from government control, the coming elections could see the National Front under serious challenge.
The real question will be, however, with its leader free, whether the People’s Alliance can tempt away National Front members to tip it from power. If it can, the next question will be how such a fractured alliance can rule in what remains an ethnically divided state.