Malaysia's Islamists to Back Anwar, Alliance

Malaysia's Islamist party is set to back Anwar Ibrahim at an assembly on Friday, despite his looming trial on sodomy charges, and downplay its traditional commitment to Islamic laws.

But other members of Anwar's "rainbow coalition" -- Chinese parties and urban reformers -- remain suspicious of their electoral partner, Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), and its Islamic agenda in this multicultural nation of 27 million people.

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Anwar, 60, who was jailed on charges of sodomy and corruption a decade ago, has denied the latest charge that he had sex with a 23-year-old male aide. He was released on bail, allowing him to contest an Aug. 26 by-election, which he is favored to win.

His wife, who was the opposition leader in parliament, vacated the seat so he could contest the election, enter parliament, and initiate a grand plan to lead the opposition to power in Malaysia for the first time by wooing defections from the governing coalition.

But he needs PAS in his pocket to pull all that off. The party has shrugged off the charge of sodomy, an abhorrent practice in Islam, and is backing Anwar's election bid.

"Give Anwar a chance to become an MP," PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat said recently. "PAS should support Anwar even though we are hardly similar in political ideology," he was quoted by Bernama news agency as saying. Nik Aziz has also said the sodomy charge would not affect Anwar's credibility.

PAS Needs Partners

PAS has 23 seats in parliament out of 82 held by Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat coalition and it won over Indian and Chinese voters in March elections when the alliance secured power in five of 13 state governments, dealing the governing coalition its worst-ever electoral showing.

"Whenever PAS has been in a coalition with other parties it has fared well in elections," said Terence Gomez, professor at the University of Malaya's Faculty of Economics & Administration. "So PAS needs Anwar if it wants to do well outside of the Malay heartland, and that the party members cannot deny."

PAS modernisers argue the party has grown out of its isolated, poor base in the northeast of the country and that it wants a share of power so it can implement some of its policies.

But PAS conservatives still wield considerable power.

They protested at the weekend against a meeting of the Malaysia Bar Council's forum on conversions of non-Muslims to Islam, and the PAS youth wing also wants the government to ban pop star Avril Lavigne's concert in August.

Suspicions of PAS run deep among its partners in the loose opposition alliance and the feeling is mutual among PAS hardliners.

PAS talks last month with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) on safeguarding Malay-Muslim rights prompted speculation it was about to quit the opposition alliance.

To some in PAS, UMNO, the main party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, is preferable due to its Malay-Muslim core.

Analysts cautioned an alliance with UMNO, which has partnered with PAS before, may not get the Islamist party any closer to its plans of running the country according to its principles.

"The (opposition) offers more possibilities because it is very new. If they win, there could be opportunities for PAS, like getting ministerial posts for Islamic affairs," said Lee Hock Guan, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of Southeast Asia Studies.

Political Risk Problems

The prospect of prolonged instability has scared investors away from Malaysia's stock, bond and foreign exchange markets.

The country's ringgit currency has fallen to 12-month lows of 3.32 to the dollar and the stock market has lost 22.58 percent in value this year.

"Political risk has become a major problem in Malaysia and has the potential to destabilize the nation," said economist Nikhilesh Bhattacharyya in a report published in Moody's on Wednesday.

Paradoxically, investors are likely to have little to fear from PAS whose economic program endorses social justice, but makes clear it is committed to a vibrant, growing middle class.

It has also built a reputation for good governance and for stamping out corruption in states it rules, winning plaudits from businesses, in sharp contrast to the ruling coalition.

"It is not like we are are out to do an Islamic economy when everything is sharia compliant," a senior PAS official said speaking on condition of anonymity, noting that Malaysia already had dual Islamic and conventional finance.