Permatang Pauh, Malaysia opposition cries foul in Anwar by-election


PERMATANG PAUH, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia's opposition alliance, which backs Anwar Ibrahim in his bid to return to parliament, said on Monday that some of its supporters had been removed from voter lists ahead of a crucial by-election.

As tensions mounted in the usually sleepy northern Malaysian enclave of Permatang Pauh, police sent in reinforcements to prevent clashes between rival groups and there were reports of a scuffle between Anwar supporters and government backers.

The vote pits Anwar, an ex-deputy prime minister who is now the de facto opposition leader, against the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in the coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.

Tensions have mounted with the nightly airing on television of testimony sworn on the Koran by a 23-year-old former male aide who says he was sodomised by Anwar. Anwar has been formally charged with the offence and will appear in court on Sept. 10.

"Clearly this election can only be fair and free when the media is free and when the Election Commission is credible and respected as an independent commission. We don't have that on both accounts," Anwar told a press conference on Monday.

Earlier, the Anwar camp said that Malaysia's Election Commission had removed 949 names from the voter list that was used in the March 8 general elections.

Turnout will be key in establishing Anwar's credentials to lead a three-party opposition coalition in parliament and for him to be able to deliver on a promise to beat the government in a confidence vote he has said he will call on September 16.

To emerge as a credible leader who can hold together an opposition alliance, which comprises reformists, an Islamist and an ethnic Chinese party, Anwar needs a majority of at least 15,000-20,000, political analysts say.

This is where the sodomy charge could have its greatest impact and the airing on television of the complainant's testimony could have a big impact, causing elderly Muslims to think twice about casting their vote for Anwar.

"This has some negative impact on Anwar," said Rita Sim, deputy head of a think-tank linked to a party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

Malaysia's Election Commission hotly denied that it had rigged the voter list.

"This is a lie. We don't have powers to remove (names), under the constitution we don't have such powers," said the commission's secretary, Kamarulzaman Mohamad Noor.

STEPS TO POWER

Government leaders have played down the prospects that Anwar could garner the 30 defectors he needs to win a parliamentary vote, saying that there were no immediate signs that any of their 140 lawmakers would jump ship to Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat alliance.

Anwar has insisted that his goal of forming a new government by September 16 is still on track and has promised to reform the judiciary and to take measures to boost the economy and shield people from rising prices.

Anwar's push for power has unsettled investors, some of whom fear the process could bring a period of prolonged economic uncertainty and some are concerned that the ruling coalition will resort to populist economic policies.

Malaysia's benchmark share index has lost around 25 percent so far this year.

"Our base case is the opposition parties still need time to work through all the differences among the different parties in order to form a stronger alliance," Citigroup analyst Wai Kee Choong said in a research report.

Anwar, once regarded as a future UMNO leader, was jailed in the late 1990s on charges of corruption and sodomy, which he says were concocted after he began campaigning against graft. The sodomy conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2004.

(Writing by Faisal Aziz and David Chance; Editing by Valerie Lee and Alex Richardson)
Jalil Hamid
Reuters

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