KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia's ruling coalition won a vote Thursday to ban its archrival Anwar Ibrahim and three of his top allies from Parliament for six months, eroding the opposition's legislative influence to precarious levels.
The suspension reduces the opposition to less than one-third of Malaysia's 222-member Parliament for the first time since 2008 general elections. That could enable Prime Minister Najib Razak's coalition to change the constitution and election district boundaries before the next national polls, which some expect next year.
Anwar was suspended on accusations of making false statements in Parliament last March, when he claimed that the government's program to promote multiracial unity in this Muslim-majority country was inspired by a 1999 Israeli election campaign.
The suspension was the government's "way of mocking the people's voice, preventing us from defending ourselves," the opposition leader said after Thursday's vote. Anwar's three senior colleagues were penalized for leaking details about a parliamentary investigation into his remarks.
Anwar and dozens of other opposition legislators stormed out of Parliament's lower house during the vote, which followed scenes of pandemonium and shouting. Some opposition lawmakers held posters denouncing the lower house as "a kangaroo court" because they claimed Anwar was unfairly targeted.
Anwar and the other three lawmakers will be barred from parliamentary debates and votes through June, but they can continue other political work, such as addressing rallies. The opposition has already launched efforts to convince the public that the government is abusing its legislative majority.
Well-known lawyer Karpal Singh, one of the suspended legislators, said he plans to file a court challenge against the measure, which he claimed was not conducted according to "the rule of natural justice."
Khairy Jamaluddin, a prominent government lawmaker, said Anwar "was given every opportunity to defend himself but chose to abuse and stall the process" over the past nine months. Anwar has insisted his comments linking the government's policies to Israel were correct.
Political activity has intensified amid rampant rumors that Najib will call for national polls next year, even though they are not due until mid-2013. Najib might seek to capitalize on internal bickering in Anwar's three-party alliance, which made spectacular gains in 2008 elections but has since lost some of its luster.
Anwar has also been distracted by an ongoing trial on charges that he sodomized a male former aide in 2008. He faces a 20-year prison sentence if convicted of the accusation, which he says was fabricated to stem his political ascent. The government denies any conspiracy.