Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim waves before he leaves the courthouse in Kuala Lumpur July 8, 2009.
Few rally for Anwar as Malaysia trial delayed
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Just a handful of people turned out to cheer Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at his latest court appearance as a new poll said government reforms were popular, which may show Anwar’s influence is waning.
Anwar denounced the trial for sodomy which had been due to start on Wednesday as a “despicable and desperate” move by the government to remove him from politics after the judge said he would delay it and hear applications from lawyers on July 15.
On an overcast day in the Malaysian capital, around a hundred black-clad opposition supporters shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) and “reformasi” (reform), pushed into the court complex but there were no clashes with police, who heavily outnumbered them.
The protesters were far fewer than the thousands who thronged court appearances in 1998 at the height of the Asian financial crisis after Anwar was dismissed as deputy prime minister, and charged with sodomy and corruption in a case lasting 14 months.
“It is not as tension-filled as before. It is almost as if people are used to seeing this situation and frankly, I am tired of this case,” said Mohd Amir Hamza, a shopkeeper who watched the arrival of Anwar and photographed him with his mobile phone.
The judge said on Wednesday that he would hear applications for dismissal of the case, discovery of evidence by the defense and to set a new date for the trial on July 15 after Anwar’s lawyers said they needed more time to prepare.
Anwar, 61, wearing a grey coat and fawn shirt and accompanied by his wife, told reporters after the hearing that the government was again persecuting him in a bid to maintain its 51-year grip on power in this Southeast Asian country of 27 million people.
“UMNO (the lead government coalition party) political leaders will resort to a repeat of this same game after seeing all their cards … are not enough to contain the tide of people wanting change,” he said.
If found guilty in the court where a judge sits alone, Anwar could face 20 years in jail, effectively ending his career.
The National Front government, led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), stumbled to its worst election losses in 2008, losing its two-thirds parliamentary majority and seeing five of 13 states fall to the opposition, a record haul.
Since then the National Front has lost a series of state and parliamentary by-elections forcing the government to switch prime ministers, appointing Najib Razak, the son of Malaysia’s second post-independence leader, to head the government in April.
POPULAR REFORMS FROM NEW PM
In his first 100 days in office, Najib has announced an ambitious set of reforms, aimed at boosting foreign investment in this export-dependent country whose economy is expected by the government to contract up to five percent this year.
Last week he unveiled a series of measures to open up the economy, risking the ire of the majority Malay population who saw some of their economic privileges removed.
But a poll published on Wednesday showed Najib appeared to have gained traction for the government and his reforms had won widespread approval.
Najib’s personal popularity rating surged to 65 percent from 42 percent in mid-May, according to a poll from the independent Merdeka Center, and 60 percent of the 1,062 people questioned approved of the reforms.
Ibrahim Suffian, head of the polling body, said Najib began his premiership with lower ratings but had gained ground by initiating economic measures such as his economic liberalization measures.
Najib has also attempted to address ethnic and socio-economic issues by introducing an inclusive “1Malaysia” policy to promote improved relations between the majority Malays and ethnic Chinese and Indians.
“Najib has created new political capital by these measures but how well he can hold up his support depends on how he delivers, specifically on two key reforms which are at the top of the respondents agenda, namely the economy and ethnic equality,” said Ibrahim.
(Writing by David Chance; Editing by Jerry Norton)
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