Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, delivers a statement to the media on missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner MH370. Pic: AP.

Ahead of Sunday’s crucial by-election, observers say attempts to politicize the disappearance of flight MH370 will backfire

International coverage of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has been largely critical of the Malaysian ruling elite. But as critical by-elections edge closer, the issue of the missing jet has taken a domestic political spin against de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

The Mail on Sunday in the United Kingdom recently carried the headline ‘Doomed Airliner Pilot Was A Political Fanatic’, with a catchy strapline ‘REVEALED: Pilot flew missing jet hours after attending a show trial to support convicted Opposition leader’. How this would make him a ‘fanatic’ we’re not sure, but there was an immediate reaction on Twitter.

In terms of Malaysian politics, the missing plane crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time, for some at least. On Sunday the opposition coalition seeks to gain a key position through a by-election.

Anwar Ibrahim, de facto leader of the opposition coalition that won 51% of the popular vote in last year’s general election, was widely anticipated to stand in the Kajang by-elections that would have paved the way for him to become the Menteri Besar or Chief Minister of Selangor.

The Mail on Sunday's lead

If the Beijing-bound flight had not vanished, international attention on Malaysia would have centred on the abruptly overturned the acquittal of Anwar Ibrahim’ sodomy charges, and the swift sentencing that followed just in time to stop him from being nominated as a contender in the Kajang by-elections. Such political defensiveness underscores how critical the Kajang by-elections are and the threat Anwar Ibrahim poses to Prime Minister Najib Razak and the ruling Barisan Nasional. His wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, now replaces him in the by-election.

(MORE: Malaysia sodomy case flawed from Day One)

The speculation carried in the Mail on Sunday now means that Ibrahim finds himself defending his family from allegations that there are politcal links to the missing jet mystery.

(‘DS’ is an abbreviation of Dato’ Seri Anwar Bin Ibrahim, the de facto opposition leader’s full name)

Dr Bridget Welsh, associate professor in political science at Singapore Management University says, “The campaign to link the missing flight to Anwar’s family is likely to backfire for Barisan Nasional. Using speculation as a political tool is likely to be viewed as distasteful and repulsive to the majority of Malaysian public.”

She adds, “In fairness, such accusations are not coming directly from key Barisan Nasional political leaders like Prime Minister Najib Razak or Acting Transport Minister Hishammudin Hussein, but it was the Mail on Sunday, a newspaper in the United Kingdom that accused the pilot of being a political fanatic, which links the missing flight to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. The media dynamic means that international coverage has fed back into local coverage. This story has its roots in Malaysia, however, and raises the question of the source of the story.”

On Facebook, Khairy Jamaluddin, the chairman of the youth organisation for Barisan Nasional, denies that the government accused the opposition of being linked to the missing flight. He says that Anwar Ibrahim is now playing the victim.

Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, left, and his wife Wan Azizah, who will contest Sunday's by-election. Pic: AP.

Welsh says the speculation in the foreign press were irresponsibly repeated in Utusan, a government-linked newspaper she sees as being “conspiracy oriented and radically reflects the views of the regime. Utusan is government-linked but it is not officially the government. This appears to be yet another attack by innuendo reflective of the country’s gutter politics.”

The Economist’s recently published Corruption Index ranks Malaysia as the third most corrupt country in the world. Against the backdrop of such a huge human tragedy, the ranking gives an twisted undertone to Malaysia’s governance.

Dr Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, weighs in with this observation: “The Kajang election is a by-election, whatever attempt is made to capitalise on the MH370  mystery will backfire. In the longer term, the official handling of the missing plane will have repercussions in that it embarrassed a lot of Malaysians and where foreign relations are concerned, it has made other countries wonder about Malaysia’s developmental status in that the economic growth does not seem to have been matched by advancement in governance.”

‘Backfire’ appears to be the word on the lips of political observers when it comes to any efforts to use this tragedy as political leverage.