Anwar′s wife tasked with cementing Malaysian opposition | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 19.05.2015
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Anwar's wife tasked with cementing Malaysian opposition

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail has been sworn into Malaysia's parliament as opposition leader after winning the seat vacated by her jailed husband Anwar Ibrahim. DW speaks to journalist Jahabar Sadiq about the tasks awaiting her.

The 62-year-old politician had won her husband's parliamentary seat two weeks ago in a by-election seen as a test of support for the three-party alliance he headed. The trained medical doctor and mother of six took the seat in the northern state of Penang that was vacated after her husband was jailed in February. In a move likely to end his political career, Anwar was imprisoned for five years on charges that he sodomized a former male aide - a case critics view as politically motivated.

The conviction not only banned the 67-year-old from politics five years after his release from prison, but also disqualified him from contesting the next election that must be held by 2018. This is the second time that Wan Azizah has stepped in for her husband during controversial imprisonments. She won the same seat back in 1999, replacing Anwar after he was sacked as deputy prime minister in Malaysia's long-ruling government and jailed on previous sodomy and corruption charges.

In a DW interview, Jahabar Sadiq, chief editor of The Malaysian Insider news portal, says that while Wan Azizah is not expected to make an impact in parliament, she is expected as a popular icon and figurehead, and holds the fragile opposition coalition together.

The wife of jailed Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Wan Azizah is officially sworn in as a member of parliament in the Dewan Rakyat, the Parliament of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 18 May 2015 (Photo: EPA/FAZRY ISMAIL +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail

DW: What can you tell us about Wan Azizah's political career?

Jahabar Sadiq: This is the second time Wan Azizah is stepping in her husband's shoes for a federal election. She did it in 1999 when she stood in the Permatang Pauh federal seat, which her husband had held since 1982. She was then president of the Parti Keadilan Nasional (Keadilan) which was set up in 1999 in the aftermath of her husband's sacking as deputy prime minister and finance minister in 1998 on sodomy and abuse of power charges.

She kept the seat in the 2004 and 2008 general elections but gave way to her husband in August 2008 in a by-election, which saw Anwar Ibrahim back to parliament. In 2014, she also stood in place of her husband in the Selangor state seat of Kajang as Anwar was facing a second sodomy charge.

Her election earlier this month for Permatang Pauh came again after Anwar was jailed on the second sodomy charge. She has also remained party president throughout from 1999, and after Parti Keadilan Nasional's merger with Parti Rakyat Malaysia to form Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in 2003.

She became parliamentary opposition leader in 2008 when all three opposition parties - PKR, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) - agreed to a coalition after historic wins that denied the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) its parliamentary super-majority.

Today, she again became parliamentary opposition leader after taking office as Permatang Pauh MP. Anwar held that post when he was an MP. In short, her political career has been one of replacing and representing her husband Anwar Ibrahim, rather than as a politician in her own right.

How do you think she will fare as opposition leader?

There is not much expected of her as the perception is she is just warming the seat for her husband who has been jailed. While she has been hardened in political battle since 1999, she is not seen as a political leader with vision and strategy but more as a popular icon and figurehead.

Her strengths are her fragile and honest way of speaking, and that she is the wife of Anwar Ibrahim. Her weakness is simple - she does not possess the natural cunning of a politician. Also, she is a Muslim woman whom many in the Islamist PAS publicly respect but do not see as an equal in politics. Again, she is just seen as a stand-in for Ibrahim and not expected to make an impact as he has in parliament.

What tasks lie ahead of her?

Her tasks is to keep her coalition together, without the intelligence and political maneuvering skills of her husband, who has managed to keep Islamists, social democrats, socialists and activists at one table. She has to contend with an Islamist party that wants to enact Islamic criminal laws "hudud" and a social democrat party that espouses universal themes that are beyond religious issues. Not easy considering there were serious squabbles when her husband was free and leading the opposition.

If possible, she will pass it back to Anwar once he is freed and beyond the five year restriction for convicts to hold posts in political parties and organizations. There are no other known leaders except in PKR - that is either her deputy Azmin Ali or her daughter and PKR vice-president Nurul Izzah Anwar. But that is not on the horizon just yet.

What is the current state of Malaysia's opposition?

Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (C) talks to his supporters while flanked by his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail after the verdict of his sodomy trial was announced in Kuala Lumpur January 9, 2012 (Photo: REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad)

Jahabar Sadiq: 'Wan Azizah lacks the intelligence and political maneuvering skills of her husband'

The opposition is in a tenuous state due to squabbles about whether Islamic law should be implemented. PAS wants it, PKR is quiet and DAP does not want it. At best, they're an opposition pact in name at the top but working well at the grassroots level but at worst, they can't bear the sight of some of their own colleagues. It is not quite an alternative as both coalitions practice centrist economic and social policies but differ on implementation and focus on sectors by race, religion or class.

What other issues are currently affecting the opposition?

The opposition is not cemented as a formal pact registered with the authorities. They have nothing in common except wanting to take power. They now rule three states but with varying degrees of composition in the respective state governments. At federal level, there are no regular meetings and the chemistry that bound the leadership is missing since the PAS leadership went through a transition in the past two elections.

Putting Wan Azizah as the parliamentary opposition leader is just a band-aid to cover a gaping wound of differences and separate interests in taking power from Barisan Nasional. They are popular because most voters do not like Barisan Nasional, not because they have a good team or great policies.

Jahabar Sadiq is chief editor and chief executive of The Malaysian Insider news portal.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.