Malaysia's Anwar Makes a Comeback

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Bazuki Muhammad / Reuters

Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, second from left, his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and other opposition leaders wave to supporters after winning a by-election on Aug. 26

For Anwar Ibrahim, redemption must be feeling pretty sweet. On Aug. 26, the Malaysian opposition leader won a landslide victory in a local by-election, a political comeback for the former deputy prime minister who has been out of office for the last decade. "We won! And our victory is decisive and overwhelming," an exhausted Anwar told thousands of supporters gathered outside a ballot counting center several hundred kilometers north of the capital that night.

Taking over 31,000 of 47,000 votes in a Penang election, Anwar's resounding win promises to energize his People's Alliance opposition coalition and confirms the politician's appeal cuts across race and religion despite his six-year imprisonment and the sodomy charges he is now facing. It also brings the 61-year-old politician a step closer to a more personal goal: becoming the next prime minister. "Next stop is Putra Jaya," Anwar told the wildly cheering supporters, referring to Malaysia's administrative capital that houses the office of current Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. "This is a victory for the people. And it's great to be back."

Not everyone in his camp was convinced it would happen. After serving six years in prison on sodomy and corruption charges that he has always denied, in early August Anwar was accused of sodomizing his former 23-year-old aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan, who appeared on national television to accuse his ex-boss of the crime. Anwar has consistently denied the accusations, claiming they are politically motivated. Meanwhile, he has also come under fire for his support of policies that would extend Malaysia's affirmative action benefits — now exclusive to ethnic Malays — to the nation's other minority races. As votes were being counted on election night, Anwar supporter Abdul Fatih, 51, a trader in the town of Permatang Pauh still harbored doubts. "Will he really win? Will they let him win?" he asked.

Anwar was not the only one who had to endure a rough campaign season. Residents in the Permatang Pauh constituency have lived with banners strung up throughout their neighborhoods trumpeting Anwar's alleged transgressions, while giant video screens at street corners in the area replayed video clips of Saiful's televised accusations. "I told my teenage daughter not to look up at the banners," said Fatih. "It was so terrible, so shameful the way they attack Anwar. Praise God he has won."

To many, Anwar's sweep is a clear indicator that voters — at least in this part of the country — are ready to bring the charismatic politician back onto the national stage. "It is a decisive signal that the people want and are ready for change and they believe only Anwar can make that change," says Bridget Welsh, a professor of South East Asian politics at Johns Hopkins University. According to Welsh, Anwar's victory could also give strength to demands in the ruling party for Abdullah, the current prime minister who has promised to step down within two years, to resign earlier. "It signals voters have rejected his rudderless leadership," Welsh says. "Most people are eager for Anwar to lead the country."

But Anwar can't afford to get too comfortable in his post-win glow. He still has plenty of political hurdles to clear after he is sworn into parliament this week — chiefly, his upcoming trial, which opens on Sept. 10 in Kuala Lumpur. The government told parliament earlier this month that prosecutors have a strong case and promised a fair trial. Anwar has countered, saying with corruption and collusion at historical highs, a fair trial will be impossible and has requested the government drop the Attorney General's case. As Welsh warns: "The political heat [will] cool off during Ramadan next month, but expect some big surprises after that."