Anwar Faces Malaysia Vote With Shaky Alliance As Sex Case Looms

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, fighting criminal charges of having illegal sex with a man, probably will win a seat in parliament today. His plan to topple Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi may not be so easily accomplished.

``Don't underestimate this by-election,'' Anwar said yesterday. The district of Permatang Pauh's 58,459 voters ``will determine history.''

Emboldened by victories in March elections, Anwar has pledged to take power by Sept. 16 by attracting ruling-coalition lawmakers to join his three-party alliance, which promises to scrap Malaysia's system of preferences for ethnic Malays.

Abdullah has tried to bolster his United Malays National Organisation-led coalition, in power since independence in 1957, by wooing an Islamist member of Anwar's alliance with government positions. Abdullah's party argues that eliminating the preferences would threaten Islamic unity in the multiracial and multireligious country.

Anwar's coalition of secular rights activists and Islamists ``was a rather unholy alliance from the start,'' said Ooi Kee Beng, an analyst at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Keeping it together is ``is a much bigger challenge than the sodomy'' charge.

Anwar led his People's Justice Party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the secular Democratic Action Party to power in five of Malaysia's 13 states in the March elections. They fell 30 seats short of ousting Abdullah's coalition from the 222-seat federal parliament.

Islamic State
PAS, as the Islamic party is known, wants Malaysia to be an Islamic state. The DAP, pointing to the almost 40 percent of the population who are Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, opposes that. Despite their differences PAS and DAP leaders have appeared at rallies for Anwar's campaign and said they are committed to their alliance.

``I'm not disputing the fact that there are issues to be resolved,'' Anwar said at a press conference yesterday. ``But what is paramount is that we are here together as a team.''

Polling stations in the district open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. local time. Results are expected by 6 p.m. Arif Shah Omar Shah, the 52-year-old candidate for the UMNO-led coalition, and independent Islamist Hanafi Hamat, 61, are the other contenders.

Anwar's Birthplace
The district, where Anwar was born 61 years ago, elected him to parliament four times when he was an UMNO member. His lowest vote share was 70 percent.

His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, won the seat three times while Anwar was ineligible for office due to earlier convictions on charges of sodomy and interfering with police inquiries. The earlier sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004. His wife vacated the seat last month so he could compete in today's election to reclaim it.

Anwar says the new sodomy charge and earlier one are both part of conspiracies to prevent him from taking power. The government insists he will have a fair trial.

It is a crime in Malaysia for men to have sex with each other under a law that bars sodomy, defined as ``carnal intercourse against the order of nature.'' Violations are punishable by as much as 20 years in prison.

``Anwar's name is tainted,'' Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said at an UMNO rally two days ago in the district. ``Is this the kind of person we want as a leader?''

A video of Anwar's 23-year-old accuser swearing on the Koran that the politician sodomized him has been screened regularly at UMNO's headquarters in the district, 370 kilometers (230 miles) north of Kuala Lumpur.

Voters rejected similar character attacks on Anwar in the March elections, Ooi said, predicting a victory for him. ``If Anwar loses this, he's lost everything,'' Ooi said.

By Soraya Permatasari and Ranjeetha Pakiam

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