Saturday, May 04, 2013

Anwar’s moment


Anwar’s moment

M.J. Akbar

In Malaysia, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s campaign is on song,
sometimes literally so. He does tend to remind his massive rallies
that it’s “Now or Never”. Even if everyone does not catch the
allusion, no one misses the message. Maybe Anwar has at long last
found time for a snatch of song after having suffered years of
soul-searing, unbelievable injustice and political barbarism, because
the mood around him is so buoyant.
I write this on the eve of what could be Malaysia’s most breathtaking
election result in 56 years of history as an independent republic.
Better men than me have tempted fate by making unnecessary
predictions. So let me just quote that ubiquitous taxi driver, the
first and last resort of any hack in search of an election forecast.
There are two remarkable things about Kuala Lumpur, he said, as I
settled down in his vehicle outside the Mandarin hotel and nudged
forward a conversation: the city’s infrastructure and the taxi
drivers’ brain. I bowed in homage.
The government, he continued without much need of a further prod, had
an overwhelming majority in the number of flags and buntings that
pockmarked the capital. Anwar had the votes. He laughed with some
gusto at his own joke, doubtless not for the first time. There were 30
taxis in his pool, he explained; only five or six drivers were with
the ruling party. The rest were with Anwar. How did they express their
solidarity? They could not refuse a passenger at the hotel, but if
they saw one flagging a taxi outside one of those sparse government
public gatherings they just drove on. Let the chap walk. More
What about the growing talk that government agents were offering 500
ringit [about $160] per vote? “I will take the money,” he chortled.
“After all, it is my money. They took it from the public. But voting
is private.” The laugh lowered to a meaningful chuckle. Then he added
a caveat. He was only talking about Kuala Lumpur and adjacent
provinces. He did not know what was happening elsewhere.
Anecdotal evidence is in favour of Anwar Ibrahim. International
television channels like CNN and BBC, which prefer to be circumspect,
are beginning to broadcast that this election could lead to the first
ever change in government. Anwar’s theme is precisely that: change. He
has tapped into many levels of discontent, not the least of them being
anger against perceived corruption. There is a palpable sense that
enough voters are simply tired of the establishment, even when they
are not particularly angry over any specific issue.
The establishment will not surrender without a last-ditch stand, in
which every weapon from its well-stocked political arsenal will be
brought into play. The air is rife with talk of desperate measures.
Planes, say some, have been chartered to bring voters loyal to the
government to hop and jump through marginal constituencies, to cast
bogus votes. There are substantive rumours that mercenaries from
Bangladesh have been mobilized to add to their numbers. Each whisper
builds resistance among genuine voters. It is not as if government is
bereft of genuine support. The country’s ethnic divisions are sharp:
Malay, Chinese and Indians who were brought in by the British as
labour for plantations. In a quaint move, these Indians recently
petitioned the British monarch for compensation to atone for the sins
of her ancestors. Queen Elizabeth maintained her stiff upper lip, but
you get the point. Indians, exceptions apart, remain at the bottom of
the economic pile, but have still not been persuaded that they need to
challenge the establishment. They will decide, said a wealthy
entrepreneur, in a typically Indian fashion: on Saturday night.
Voting starts on Sunday morning. By Sunday night the Election
Commission will announce which of the two antagonists needs
prescription drugs for deep depression.
If the opposition is optimistic it is largely because of a new
demographic is going to play a crucial role, the first-time voter. Add
this lot to the second-time voter and you get the powerful vanguard
that is building momentum for Anwar Ibrahim’s call for change. Its
enthusiasm has become infectious in the cities; and there is reason to
believe that it is seeping into rural areas as well. This identity
operates outside traditional ethnic constituencies. Its momentum is
Malaysia is not alone; a similar phenomenon is at play in elections
that will sweep across from south east Asia to Iran in the next 15
months. Youth power is rarely good news for the establishment. Imran
Khan’s success in Pakistan will be properly measured only after the
results are in, but if he is going somewhere it is only because the
young are travelling with him. When India votes, the young will make
the difference. It is a fallacy to suggest that the young vote only
for the young. They vote for whoever can promise a better future. That
is the only meaning of change.

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