Thursday, September 18, 2008

Anwar Ibrahim is playing Sonny's game

All too many times in the course of these ramblings, we've recounted how our son, on the cusp of turning five months old, toys with us: He'll give every indication that he's ready for his milk, then do a quick-change when Mum hurries over in anticipation. Maybe later, Sonny's expression says as he pushes Mum and her milk-tap aside, at most giving a quick taste before dismissing her.

Well, Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian opposition supremo who has been promising to stage a parliamentary coup for months now, is playing Sonny's game. As everybody knows, the man was able to lead a motley alliance of opposition parties to stunning gains in the March elections, when they came within 30 seats of capturing a majority in Parliament. Ever since then, he's vowed to win over enough Members of Parliament (MP) from the current ruling coalition to kick out Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and form the new government.

The whole country, and observers from around the world, have been waiting for him to do just that ever since. A news report will announce that he's reached the magic number of 30 defecting MPs, there'll be a flurry of interest, but then nothing happens and everything settles. A few weeks on comes another declaration of victory, followed by slow deflation of the balloon. A couple of days ago, Anwar missed the deadline he had set himself for seizing power - the anniversary of the founding of modern Malaysia. But he now insists even more stridently that he has the 30 turncoats he needs, and more. He's asking to meet the Prime Minister to arrange a peaceful transfer of power - yet he will not reveal who this mob of defecting MPs are.

With Sonny, at least, you knew that - after spurning us a dozen times - there comes the point when he absolutely has to drink. It's that or starve, little fella, and he knows it, so eventually he'll be gulping away. One can only hope that Anwar realises that he has put himself in the same position. People are able to buy his many excuses for not putting his cards on the table for only so long: That revealing the names of the MPs might bring about instant retribution from the government, that they might be pressured into recanting, and so forth. Politics is a bare-knuckle sport, it must be admitted, so you don't give away any advantages until you have to. Still, at some point, you have to follow through with your promises - especially if you keep repeating them, and insisting that you already have the wherewithal to fulfil them.

Anwar's opponents, and more cynical commentators, will note that Anwar faces a charge of sodomising an aide, and claim that he's just distracting everyone from the coming trial. More plausibly, by presenting a position of apparent strength (even when he doesn't quite have enough MPs yet), he might draw more undecideds to commit to his legal putsch. In both cases, to be honest, he would only be exercising political dexterity. It is really up to the beleaguered ruling coalition to neutralise him by getting the people onto their side, by stabilising the wobbly economy, presenting credible reforms and settling their very public internal conflicts. The problem, of course, is that these folks are scuttling about without a coherent strategy and reaching - worryingly - for old-fashioned tactics like a warning that Anwar is now a "threat to national security". Such ham-handed moves just make it seem that Anwar really is on the cusp of victory.

It's really quite simple. Anwar has to deliver. Milking time is overdue, though there could be sound tactical reasons for why he's taking it one step at a time. Of course, it could all be a fraudster's shtick and he may never follow through.

But remember: If so, he'll eventually be starved of support.