Anwar, Seeking Power in Malaysia, Wins By-Election

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, fighting charges he had illegal sex with a man, won back a parliament seat today, gaining a new platform for his campaign to take over the government.

``The message is clear,'' Anwar said after regaining his former seat of Permatang Pauh. ``We, the Malaysian people, demand change for freedom and justice in this country,'' he told thousands of supporters outside the Election Commission center. They let off fireworks and chanted `reformasi,' the Malay word for reform.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's government can be toppled by mid-September with the defection of lawmakers from the ruling coalition, Anwar says. His three-party opposition alliance made record gains in March elections on a pledge to scrap Malaysia's system of preferences for ethnic Malays.

``Anwar's immediate challenge is to prove he can meet his Sept. 16 deadline,'' said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent research institute that's based near Kuala Lumpur. The coalition's loss today can be seen as ``a barometer'' of public sentiment, he said.

The deadline set by Anwar to form a government is the day in 1963 when the Federation of Malaysia was formed.

Anwar won 31,195 votes today, more than double the total of the coalition candidate, Arif Shah Omar Shah, who took 15,524. The district in the northern state of Penang sent Anwar to parliament four times when he was a member of the ruling coalition.

Sodomy Charges

Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, won the seat three times while he 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.

Still, Anwar, could lose the seat again if he's convicted of having sex with a male 23-year-old former assistant. The charge, similar to one made 10 years ago that led to his sacking and imprisonment, was highlighted by the government in its election campaign. Sex between men is illegal in Malaysia and violators can be jailed for as long as 20 years.

A date for the trial will be set on Sept. 10

About 59 percent of Malays, whom analysts said were most likely to be influenced by the sodomy charges, believe the latest allegation against Anwar is politically motivated, according to a Merdeka Center survey. The institution polled 544 Malay voters in Permatang Pauh from Aug. 22 to Aug. 24 and said the result has a margin of error of 4.3 percent.

Abdullah's Successor

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 March. They fell 30 seats short of ousting Abdullah's coalition from the 222-seat federal parliament.

Abdullah, facing calls from within his own coalition to resign after the March election, rejects suggestions that his lawmakers may defect to Anwar and has pledged to hand power to his deputy Najib Razak in June 2010 in order to head off a leadership challenge.

The opposition's pledge to end the country's system of preferences helped win votes from the district's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, who have to pay more for homes, gain better grades to enter university and compete for jobs after Malay allocations have been filled.

``With the changes he brings, even if I cannot enjoy it, in the long run, I know my children will,'' said Amir Abdullah, a 34-year-old Indian Muslim surveyor from Penang, the northern state where the by-election took place. ``There is only one race -- the Malaysian race.''

By Soraya Permatasari and Ranjeetha Pakiam

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