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Anwar in jail raises unity challenge for Malaysia opposition

The imprisonment of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will provide the disparate, multi-ethnic coalition he headed with some momentum to resolve differences even as the longer-term challenge to stay united remains.

[KUALA LUMPUR] The imprisonment of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will provide the disparate, multi-ethnic coalition he headed with some momentum to resolve differences even as the longer-term challenge to stay united remains.

Mr Anwar's five-year sentence and a five-year political ban upon release is forcing his three-member Pakatan Rakyat alliance to choose a new leader. The group must pursue an inclusive agenda to stay relevant and challenge the Barisan Nasional coalition that's ruled for almost six decades, according to Clive Kessler, a sociology professor at the University of New South Wales.

Pakatan Rakyat, or People's Alliance, has little in common aside from its desire to oust Barisan Nasional. It was wracked by infighting last year over the leadership of one state it controls and the planned implementation of Islamic law in another. While the first squabble was resolved, the issue of hudud is looming as one coalition party plans to table a bill next month to pave the way for its implementation.

"New Malaysian politics, post-Anwar, will need not just a Pakatan three-wheeler vehicle, but a new kind of political mobilisation," Mr Kessler said. "It has been about trying to hold this coalition together in time for the next election and trying to overthrow Barisan Nasional. That is not sustainable. They need to sit down and think of winnable policies for the longer term and move beyond Anwar." Friction over religious rights and ethnic tolerance is increasing in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation that has a sizable Chinese and Indian minority. Prime Minister Najib Razak's party has brought in policies to shore up support with its ethnic Malay Muslim base since its worst-ever showing in the 2013 general election.

Malaysia's top court on Tuesday upheld Mr Anwar's conviction for sodomy, agreeing with an appeals court that last year overturned Anwar's 2012 acquittal on the charge. The jail term means Mr Anwar, 67, will be stripped of his parliamentary seat and banned from running for office for five years after his release, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Election Commission will announce a by-election date once it is informed of the seat's vacancy by the Speaker of Parliament, Bernama news agency reported Tuesday.

Mr Anwar was then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's deputy in the late 1990s during the Asian financial crisis. After a falling out over the government's response to the downturn, he was fired in 1998 and charged with sodomy a month later.

He spent the next six years in prison on convictions for abuse of power and sodomy. He was released in 2004 after Mahathir retired and a judge overturned the guilty verdict for having sex with a man. Mr Anwar's current imprisonment stems from a separate sodomy charge in 2008.

Last year, the three parties in his opposition coalition failed to agree initially on who should head Selangor, the nation's biggest state by gross domestic product. After months of bickering and a power struggle, a senior member of Mr Anwar's party was chosen even as he tried to install his wife in the position.

Mr Anwar's own party and another made up mainly of ethnic Malays, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, fared worse in the 2013 election than the previous ballot in 2008 while his ally, the mostly ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party, improved its fortunes. Najib's coalition won a parliamentary majority, its 13th straight election victory, though it only secured 47 percent of the popular vote.

"The situation looks serious for the PR," said Terence Gomez, a visiting professor at the University of California, who has published books on Malaysian politics. "Anwar kept the feuding DAP and PAS in the coalition. The BN is hoping that with this verdict, the PR will soon crumble."

Trust in the Malaysian government dropped nine points to 45 per cent over the past year with issues related to freedom and human rights among major contributors to the erosion of confidence, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer published last month.

The government also needs to manage the impact from a new consumption tax in April, as well as "other pertaining problems such as corruption, flood prevention and management, sufficient supply of water to the urban residents and others," said Ang Ming Chee, a research fellow at the Centre for East and South- East Asian Studies at Lund University in Sweden. That provides an opportunity to Pakatan Rakyat, she said.

"Shared grievances can be a powerful political motivation," Ms Ang said, referring to Anwar's ruling. "A more united Pakatan Rakyat will post big threat to Barisan Nasional, the latter may need to prepare for a very tough fight in the forthcoming election."

Mr Najib's United Malays National Organization, the biggest party in his coalition, will focus on improving governance to retain support, one of its lawmakers said.

"Life has to go on," Shahrir Abdul Samad, an UMNO parliamentarian from Johor state, said of the Anwar verdict and its implications for politics. "For UMNO, we will continue with our conservative ideology as espoused by the federal constitution." For Pakatan Rakyat, the immediate challenge is to find a leader to keep all three parties united. One probable candidate is Selangor Chief Minister Azmin Ali, the Star reported Tuesday, citing political academics.

"Pakatan has some serious challenges in terms of leadership but Anwar has taken a backseat in the past six to eight months and him going to jail will allow Pakatan to transition to the next phase of leadership," said Andrew Aeria, a political science associate professor at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. "Will this end Pakatan? I doubt it." Even so, Anwar's supporters are not giving up on trying to get him freed.

"This is an opportunity for all the parties to close ranks and work to defeat Barisan Nasional and UMNO," said Rafizi Ramli, secretary-general of Anwar's People's Justice Party. "So we will need to meet over the next few hours, and days. Put our plans into action. Yes, there will be rallies and we need to go through our attempts to get Anwar out of jail."