Malaysia's Anwar rejoins parliament, heads opposition

Malaysia's opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim acknowledges journalists as he sits after being sworn in as a member of parliament at the parliament house in Kuala Lumpur, August 28, 2008. Anwar won a sweeping victory in a by-election on Tuesday and returns to parliament just in time to join Friday's 2009 budget announcement and debate.REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad (MALAYSIA)

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim swears in at Parliament house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2008. Anwar took his place Thursday as a member of Malaysia's Parliament, a major step in his goal to topple the government weakened by electoral defeats and internal dissent.(AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's leading opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy premier, rejoined parliament on Thursday, bringing him closer to his ambition of toppling the government and reforming the economy.

Anwar, once the protege of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, was forced from office in 1998 on corruption and sodomy charges he said were false and part of a political conspiracy to ruin his political ambitions.

A decade on, he rejoins parliament filled with his political enemies and scores of fellow opposition lawmakers united in his quest to boot out the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled the country for the past 50 years.

To do this he must win the backing of 30 legislators from the ruling coalition to get a majority in the 222-member parliament.

"I feel vindicated. I feel great that I am back," Anwar told reporters after he was sworn in a day before the government unveils the 2009 budget widely expected to contain populist spending measures.

But Anwar faces new charges for sodomy that could see him jailed for up to 20 years. All homosexual acts are a criminal offence in this mainly Muslim nation of 27 million people.

He denies the charges and says that despite a looming court case he will oust Barisan in a confidence vote in mid-September and implement wide-ranging economic reforms and eradicate rampant corruption.

Anwar faces court to answer the latest charges on September 10. He was freed from jail in 2004 after a court quashed his earlier sodomy conviction but was still banned from seeking office until April 2008.


Resurgent with that ban lifted, he won a resounding victory in a by-election on Tuesday in a seat vacated by his wife and his success to date has rattled the ruling coalition and undermined the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

The government has been on the back foot since losing its two-thirds majority in an election in March and there were calls on Wednesday for Badawi to quit.

In parliament on Thursday, Anwar was applauded from almost full opposition benches as he entered the chamber wearing Malay dress and a songkok black hat.

He was formally appointed as leader after he had taken his oath.

The government benches were less than half full and state television's live parliamentary coverage did not show Anwar's swearing in, starting only when a government minister rose to speak.

Anwar's three-party coalition has 82 MPs.

Before his fall from grace in the late 1990s, the 61-year-old was a star of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which dominates the ruling coalition.

"Writing off Pakatan Rakyat's (Anwar's coalition) ability to entice BN MPs to defect is not something the UMNO leadership should do," commentator Zubaidah Abu Bakar wrote in the pro-government New Straits Times.

The prospect of prolonged political upheaval has hit Malaysian assets hard.

The ringgit currency and the stock market have fallen sharply since the opposition deprived Barisan of its two-thirds parliamentary majority.

(Reporting by Jalil Hamid; Writing by David Chance; Editing by David Fogarty)


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