Polling starts, Anwar tips victory in critical by-election

PERMATANG PAUH: Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said he was confident of victory Tuesday as he cast his vote in a by-election set to return him to parliament after 10 years in the wilderness.

Victory would bolster his bid to seize the reins of political power in what would be a remarkable comeback a decade after he was sacked as deputy premier and jailed on sodomy and corruption charges.

Hundreds of his supporters shouted the opposition battlecry of "Reformasi" (reform) as Anwar arrived at a polling station here with his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, flanked by a dozen bodyguards.

"God-willing, I'm confident of winning," a cheerful Anwar told reporters after casting his ballot. "The people are extremely enthusiastic about voting. We are entering parliament with a clear agenda."

However, he criticised the government's intensely negative campaign which focused on new sodomy allegations against him, saying the results were likely to be skewed by electoral fraud and vote-rigging.

"This is the most sickening election. They attack me, saying I am pro-Jewish which is an act of desperation," he said.

"We fear fraud. We are not happy with the ballot list.

"It's not Anwar versus the other candidate, it's Anwar versus the entire government machinery," he added, as a police helicopter circled overhead at the voting centre located in a stronghold of his Keadilan party.

Anwar, who was sacked in 1998 and then jailed, held the seat of Permatang Pauh in his home state of Penang from 1982-1999.

During his political exile, his wife took her husband's place as lawmaker and head of Keadilan, but stepped aside to trigger the by-election after a ban on Anwar holding public office expired.

Security was tight with 300 police on duty at the Penanti polling station, among a force of 4,500 who have been deployed amid allegations of misdeeds and attacks on supporters by both sides.

Anwar now faces new sexual misconduct accusations levelled by a 23-year-old male aide, which he says have been concocted by the government to thwart his ambitions of seizing power with the help of defecting government lawmakers.

Pollsters have said they expect Anwar to win, but that the government's no-holds-barred campaign may impact on his winning margin, which will be seen as an indicator of his ability to shrug off the sodomy charges.

However, Anwar has gathered huge crowds during the intense 10-day campaign, including a rally that drew tens of thousands on Monday night.

Roslie Ismail, a 37-year-old factory worker who attended the rally and then came to Penanti to vote, rejected the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

"I will vote for Anwar, he represents the voice of the people. God willing, he will win," he told AFP.

"I have no more faith in UMNO because there's corruption and abuse of power."

A group of three women in traditional Malay outfits and Muslim headscarves walked out of the voting centre smiling. Asked who they voted for, they said: "Of course, Anwar Ibrahim."

"Our grandparents, parents are all friends of Anwar's parents and grandparents, so we know all these allegations against him are untrue," said 42-year-old housewife Siti Ismail.

Despite the pundits' predictions, the governing coalition which has ruled Malaysia for half a century has said it believes its candidate Arif Shah Omar Shah has a good chance of winning.

"I think it is quite favourable (for Arif Ahah) based on the feedback from our polling agents," said Muhammad Muhammad Taib, UNMO's information chief.

Polling booths are due to close at 5:00pm (0800 GMT). Results of the votes from among an electorate of 58,459 eligible voters are expected to be released by 10:00pm.


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