Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is facing criticism after a crucial ally was freed of longstanding graft charges, with ruling and opposition politicians alike questioning his anti-corruption commitment.
(Bloomberg) — Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is facing criticism after a crucial ally was freed of longstanding graft charges, with ruling and opposition politicians alike questioning his anti-corruption commitment.
Anwar on Friday denied interfering in the Attorney-General’s Chambers decision to withdraw all 47 criminal charges against Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, citing ongoing investigations. The high court on Monday accepted prosecutors’ request for a dismissal but didn’t grant Zahid a full acquittal.
“It was not my decision,” Anwar told reporters in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, adding the AG only informed him of it because it was a high-profile case. “We must be fair as many have been discharged in the past and that has not been an issue.”
The AG is appointed on the prime minister’s advice, prompting critics and the opposition to point fingers at Anwar, who relies on Zahid’s support to remain in power. The optics worsened when Zahid’s release on Monday was followed by the court acquitting another fellow party lawmaker of corruption charges on Thursday.
The decision is a “significant step backward” for Anwar’s reform agenda, said Amira Aisya Abd Aziz, a lawmaker for Johor state who is part of the ruling coalition. Malaysians voted “to get rid of corruption, mismanagement, and hold people in power accountable — not to get rid of corruption cases,” she wrote on Facebook Thursday.
The backlash highlights Anwar’s dilemma: his decision to welcome Zahid as an ally when the latter was still facing graft charges had already upset longtime supporters, yet he needs the backing of the party Zahid leads to ensure his majority in parliament. Zahid was key in ensuring the scandal-tainted Barisan Nasional he leads buried its decades-long hatchet with Anwar to form a unity government, after the November general election resulted in a hung parliament.
Zahid’s discharge means the government has lost credibility on rule of law and justice, said Wong Chin Huat, a professor and political scientist at Sunway University. The unity government will now have to “really deliver on the economy” to please their base and some middle ground voters, he said.
Anwar’s closest allies in his Pakatan Harapan alliance have distanced themselves from the case. The Democratic Action Party on Tuesday demanded clarification from then-Attorney General Idrus Harun, saying it was “important to protect public and international confidence in the country’s legal system.”
Idrus was reappointed as AG in March, and his contract expired a day after Zahid was discharged. The court accepted the prosecutor’s reasons for dropping Zahid’s charges as “cogent”, the AGC said in a statement Tuesday.
Critics are now wondering if a similar reprieve is coming for former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was jailed last year for his role in the 1MDB scandal and faces multiple other related charges in court. Zahid’s Barisan Nasional, which Najib led when he was prime minister, has been pushing for Najib’s royal pardon.
If Najib is also discharged, the DAP may need to withdraw from the cabinet to appease its own supporters ahead of the next general election, Sunway University’s Wong said.
Anwar on Friday pledged to separate the role of AG and public prosecutor to prevent any abuse of power. “But we can’t bulldoze this in a few weeks and we need a to have a two-thirds majority to enforce this reform,” he said, referring to the consensus needed in parliament to enact the legislation.
(Updates with comments from Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in second, third and final paragraph.)
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.