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Free Anwar Song, by Malaysian singer Ito
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Tuesday, 16 November, 1999, 14:53 GMT
Analysis: The challenge for Malaysia's reformers
Students vent their anger over the treatment meted out to Mr Anwar Students vent their anger over the treatment meted out to Mr Anwar

By Frances Harrison in Kuala Lumpur

When Malaysians go to the polls on 29th November they will be faced with a choice between a state effectively ruled by one man or the uncertainty of political reform.

This choice has become personified by two men - Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim, who is now in jail.

Malaysia's opposition is trying to turn political disaffection into votes
Mr Anwar's sacking and beating in police custody last year touched a nerve in Malaysia's traditionally docile political culture.

Outraged at his treatment, tens of thousands of mainly young people took to the streets in an unprecedented wave of protest that became known as the "reformasi" movement.

Over the last year those street demonstrations have dwindled in size - partly because scores of protesters were arrested and charged with illegal assembly.

Fragile balance

The opposition say they deliberately chose to keep politics off the streets because Malaysians fear violence. Theirs is a country with a fragile ethnic balance - between Malays, Chinese and Indians - which experienced race riots in 1969.

Anwar supporters display their pro-reformasi merchandise
The government, meanwhile, has pointed to anti-Chinese riots in neighbouring Indonesia as a grim reminder of what could happen if the forces of "reformasi" were unleashed in Malaysia.

Nonetheless, at key moments in the past year thousands of Anwar supporters have protested at his treatment.

When he was sentenced to six years in jail in April, sporadic scuffles broke out with the police.

Malaysia's Snap Election
The government quickly accused the opposition of rioting - the opposition blamed agents provocateurs in the crowd.

And when in September Mr Anwar himself alleged he was poisoned with arsenic, nearly ten thousand "reformasi" supporters once again took to the streets.

Divided nation

In a country which does not have opinion polls the elections will provide the first true indication of public opinion.

The Malay community - around 58% of Malaysia's population - is deeply divided over the abrupt manner of Mr Anwar's dismissal.

In private some government officials continue to express their support for their jailed former colleague.

Pro-Mahathir tissues: One of the weapons in the campaign
But after a year of sordid courtroom drama and allegations of corruption and cronyism flying back and forth across the political divide, a sense of general disillusionment with all politicians - whatever their affiliation - is starting to set in.

Some Malaysians say they want a greater political voice, but are cynical about Mr Anwar's record - pointing to the fact that he was very much part of a government he now condemns as rotten to the core.

The challenge for the opposition is to transform this general sense of dissatisfaction into votes.

But they warn that this is likely to be the dirtiest election campaign in the country's 42 years of independence.

With minimal funding and denied access to state run TV and radio, opposition parties are making good use of "reformasi" web sites to reach internet savvy young Malaysians.

"Reformasi" T-Shirts, posters, key chains, CD-Roms, videos and even lighters have been produced to appeal to the more consumer minded reformists.

The intenet offers an alternative to government controlled media
In retaliation, the government has been producing all manner of merchandise - even packets of tissues - emblazoned with the prime minister's picture and lists of his achievements.

Not to be outdone the National Justice Party set up by Mr Anwar's wife, has released an album of "reformasi" songs with the cover title "Bebaskanlah" or "Free Him" - a musical appeal for Mr Anwar's release from jail.

But it is going to take more than pop songs to convince Malaysians to vote for a beleaguered opposition whose candidate for Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, is in jail.

Malaysians who took to the streets in protest and those who quietly supported them now have to decide how badly they want political reform.
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See also:
11 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Party guide: Malaysia's opposition alliance
10 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Malaysia's strongman Mahathir
12 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Malaysia's electoral showdown
18 Jun 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Mahathir: No tears for 'traitor' Anwar
22 Oct 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Anwar hits back at colleagues
04 Apr 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Anwar's wife launches new party
30 Sep 98 |  Asia-Pacific
Opposition emboldened by Anwar saga

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