More islam or more modernity

About 55.000 voters in the small constituency of Permatang Pauh in the Malaysian state of Penang may decide Malaysia's political future on Tuesday. The further development of the country is a matter of choice.

Charismatic de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim hopes an election victory there will help him make a political comeback as a member of parliament. Thomas Knirsch, representative of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Malaysia, already considers the by-election to be historic. "It is the first test of mood for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) party coalition since the national election of 8. March, in which she suffered a heavy defeat."Nothing less than the further development of the country is at stake. Anwar, who once served as deputy prime minister a few years ago, is convinced that with a parliamentary mandate he will soon be able to forge a parliamentary majority from the current governing alliance with the help of smaller parties that will elect him prime minister of Malaysia in mid-September. Provided he is not sentenced to a long prison term for alleged homosexuality by then. Fragile party coalition In mid-July, Anwar Ibrahim was arrested in Kuala Lumpur on charges of "sodomy". 23-year-old Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan had filed a complaint, claiming he had sexual intercourse with Anwar. Civil rights activists and opinion polls show that the majority of Malaysians see the case as a political intrigue against an inconvenient politician. "Many see the impeachment as an act of a government that is rapidly losing its power," said civil rights activist and popular singer-songwriter Shanon Shah. Anwar's fragile party coalition of the Islamic PAS, the Democratic Action Party and his "People's Justice Party" as senior partners had won a historic election victory over the BN, which has ruled since state independence 51 years ago, in the March general election with promises of equality for all Malaysia's ethnic groups, a decisive fight against corruption and the democratization of Malaysia. It accounts for 30 percent of members of parliament and has taken over government in 5 of Malaysia's 13 states. The Malay Umno party, the largest and dominant partner in the BN, was particularly alarmed that for the first time, Malay Muslims – its core voters – were flocking to the opposition. Big ies in Malaysia's media Conservative Islamists and their supporters in Malaysia's governing coalition see Anwar, a devout Malay Muslim, as a threat to the legally guaranteed supremacy of ethnic Malays and thus of Islam. Malays, who make up about 60 percent of the population, are Muslims by birth, according to Verfang, and enjoy economic and social privileges over Malaysians of Chinese and Indian descent. Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, as well as many Malaysians concerned about democracy, complain that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's government is undermining civil rights in favor of Islam. The by-election and the "Anwar case" are the big topics in Malaysia's media – without, of course, any inconsistencies being particularly scrutinized. Where, for instance, one wonders, is the doctor who ruled out Saiful's homosexual sex in an expert opinion? The doctor disappeared without a trace three weeks ago. "You would expect journalists to research such ies, but they don't," says Gayathra Venkiteswaran, head of the Center for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur. The media would be subject to government control. For many Malaysians, whether Anwar becomes prime minister now or has to wait until the next national election is not the deciding factor. Civil rights activist Shah, for example, says: "He can become an effective opposition leader in parliament and thus convince Malaysians by the next elections that he is serious about democratic reforms."

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