Anwar's bid for power boosted by Malaysian by-election win


KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Wednesday celebrated an election victory that will return him to parliament, boosting his plan to seize power after a decade-long political exile.

Anwar, who had already led a revitalised opposition to unprecedented gains in March general elections, insists he is on track to topple the government by mid-September with the help of defecting lawmakers.

The charismatic 61-year-old won Tuesday's by-election in his home state of Penang despite an intense campaign mounted by the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled Malaysia for half a century since independence from Britain.

"I share in the joy felt by all Malaysians on this historic day. This is a victory for the people. And it's great to be back," said Anwar, a former deputy premier who was sacked in 1998 and jailed on sodomy and corruption charges.

"We will restore the integrity of the judiciary, fight corruption and build a truly unified nation," he said in a statement.

Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian expert from Johns Hopkins University, said the result showed Anwar could successfully garner support from across racial lines in multicultural Malaysia, which is dominated by Muslim Malays.

"It's a decisive victory across races, across economic classes for Anwar Ibrahim. It's a decisive message calling for change," she said.

"I think it helps to build momentum," she said of his ambitions to persuade at least 30 ruling coalition lawmakers to switch sides.

The failure to check Anwar's ambitions triggered new calls from within the ruling party for the resignation of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose popularity has waned due to rising inflation and rampant corruption.

"He does not have the minimal credibility needed to run the country day by day, let alone to take it in the new directions we need to go in a complex world," said senior ruling party member Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.

Razaleigh plans to challenge Abdullah for the leadership in December party polls, but is likely to fail after the premier silenced calls for his immediate ouster by agreeing to hand over to his deputy Najib Razak in mid-2010.

Anwar's Keadilan party said he would be sworn into parliament on Thursday, heading the Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance which controls a third of the seats in the lower house.

Despite his triumphant return to parliament, Anwar faces another daunting hurdle as he fights to clear his name of new sodomy allegations levelled by a 23-year-old former aide, which he says have been concocted by the government.

Sodomy is a serious crime in Malaysia, a conservative and predominantly Muslim country, and carries a maximum penalty of 20 years' imprisonment.

Anwar spent six years in jail on the original sodomy charge, but was freed in 2004 when the conviction was overturned.

Razaleigh said the coalition's by-election campaign, which was criticised for its racial overtones and focus on the sexual misconduct allegations, has "embarrassed and divided the nation with its ugliness."

"It is time to face the music: it is we who have been buried," he said.

Welsh said the by-election also showed the opposition alliance was working well despite an ideological gulf among its members -- multiracial Keadilan, the conservative Islamic party PAS and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party.

PAS pledged its full support for Ibrahim to lead the opposition in parliament, although secretary-general Kamaruddin Jaafar continued to hedge on whether it would back him for premier.

"The BN has tried to create an impression of divisions between us... but it has not been viewed as a hindrance at all in the people's mind to make us the real alternative to the present government," he told AFP.

- AFP/ir
ChannelNewsAsia
27/08/08

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