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Sordid politicking triggers stand-off
By CRAIG SKEHAN
(Sydney Morning Herald)

DR MAHATHIR Mohamad's 17-year rule in Malaysia has produced an army of sycophants.

So there was no shortage of inquisitors willing to collect allegedly damaging material about his deputy and anointed successor, Mr Anwar Ibrahim, when he stepped out of line.

It was supposed to have been a matter of forcing a confession or making an arbitrary finding of guilt before the turn-coat was politically executed.

However, over-zealousness by those eager to show loyalty to the man at the top has instead led to a messy stand-off.

Mr Anwar, two decades junior to Dr Mahathir, is wounded but not yet destroyed and thousands of people are flocking to his suburban home to hear fiery speeches calling for justice and reform.

The opening in Kuala Lumpur yesterday of the Commonwealth Games appears to have at least delayed plans to charge Mr Anwar with a range of offences in order to end his public defiance.

Such international publicity would add to perceptions of an increasingly repressive Government, a Government already reeling from the country's worst economic crisis in decades.

Sordid political tactics, including the use of an uncorroborated affidavit to allege Mr Anwar had a homosexual affair and slept with prostitutes, has created a stench over Malaysia's body politic.

And forces unleashed may not be easy to control.

The country's resurgent Islamic party, Pas, looks like becoming a big winner from public disillusionment over the bitter infighting.

Pas has governed one Malaysian state since 1990, had a shock win in a by-election earlier this year and - since the economic meltdown began a year ago - has increased its membership by 25 per cent to an estimated 500,000.

Mr Anwar is also providing a rallying point for many students who are watching their career prospects erode as the country's economy contracts.

Dr Mahathir's modus operandi of intimidation and patronage, combined with a largely compliant media, has ensured daily endorsements from heavyweights in the dominant party of the ruling coalition, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

However, Mr Anwar is getting around a virtual media lock-out by distributing videos calling for an end to corruption and cronyism.

Mr Anwar and his would-be nemesis have both during the past week railed against the "law of the jungle", but in entirely different contexts.

The sacked deputy prime minister was condemning partisan use of the machinery of government to crush dissent. Dr Mahathir, meanwhile, was castigating currency speculators who impoverish developing countries in order to reap huge profits.

Both men are passionate and their futures are on the line.

Dr Mahathir, after six days of refusing to detail his reasons for moving against Mr Anwar, finally gave an explanation. The thrust of it was that Mr Anwar had fallen into a life of immorality and was therefore not a suitable leader for a conservative, religious country. He specifically denied that it had anything to do with policy differences over how to manage the economic crisis or a looming struggle over the leadership.

The attack on Mr Anwar has extended to the detention of his adopted brother under a law against "sodomy" and the arrest of a friend of Mr Anwar's on an ammunition-possession charge which carries the death penalty.

Mr Anwar has angrily asserted that senior members of the police were part of a co-ordinated plan to fabricate allegations. The thrust of his argument is that stances he adopted, including in favour of free markets, created a cabal of enemies. They had, in turn, played on Dr Mahathir's growing resentment of criticism.

Dr Mahathir continued this week to strike out against the calculated movements of capital from developing countries such as Malaysia.

He is setting himself up as a white knight willing to challenge economic orthodoxy, particularly the austerity and free-market approaches championed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

On this front, Dr Mahathir paints Mr Anwar as a captive of not only the IMF, but of an economic and diplomatic agenda pursued by the United States.

The scene at Mr Anwar's house this week has been nothing if not colourful. Women in demure Muslim head-scarves minded well-scrubbed children, elderly relatives hugged and wept, advisers huddled and the mournful tones of Muslim prayers emanated from the living room.

Each night, barefoot on a low platform under a blue marquee, Mr Anwar used a public address system to defend himself and lead up to 3,000 people in chants of "Reformasi, reformasi".

However, Mr Anwar was in government for about 16 years before his unceremonial ouster and many of the country's non-government agencies and community groups want to see him detail the type of democratic reforms he is advocating.

For a start, they want to see a campaign to repeal draconian laws, particularly the Internal Security Act, which provides for detention without charge, and the Sedition Act.

Ms Elizabeth Wong, from the Malaysian human rights group Suwaram, said many community organisations - while believing Mr Anwar's treatment to be unfair - were adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

"We want to know what sort of reform agenda he is proposing," she said. "If it is just going to be pressure aimed at getting him back into UMNO, it is not our concern."

Mr Anwar, who was detained for two years in 1974 as a militant leader in the Islamic youth movement, is now seeking to tap into his roots.

However, the staunchly Islamic leaders of Pas have extended only limited moral support and behind the scenes are planning to exploit the current imbroglio to increase their electoral appeal.

There is a strong likelihood that Dr Mahathir, who has insulated the economy from speculators in order to quickly re-inflate it, will call national elections well before they are due in 2000.

Some in the Anwar camp argue that it is time to employ heavier calibre political ordinance by disseminating evidence he collected, as deputy prime minister and minister for finance, of high-level kickbacks on government contracts.

"The Mahathir clique appoints corrupt people because they have information with which to control them," one Anwar backer said this week.

A potential pitfall is that releasing material on alleged corruption could lead to Mr Anwar being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.

And hardheads close to Mr Anwar worry that opening a closet full of skeletons could have other negative consequences.

For a start, the fact that Mr Anwar was a leading light in the hierarchy gives rise to a pertinent query: if he knows so much, why did he not blow the whistle earlier?

Certainly, Mr Anwar's dramatic rise was largely attributable to Dr Mahathir's past patronage. Although Mr Anwar made muted challenges to aspects of what has come to be known as Malaysia Incorporated, he benefited under the status quo, including through media manipulation.

Whether the call of "reformasi" grows louder, or fades, will at least partly depend on the extent to which ordinary Malaysians believe Mr Anwar is morally bankrupt or the victim of an elderly man's determination to hold onto power.