Malaysia’s opposition People’s Justice Party leader Anwar Ibrahim has won a by-election in the northern Permatang Pauh constituency by a landslide. Anwar will return to parliament after a decade. The election commission said he had secured about two-thirds of the votes. Tuesday's victory is key for the three-party opposition alliance in Malaysia that is trying to break the ruling coalition’s five-decade-long grip on power.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his wife get ready to cast their vote in crucial by-election
Anwar Ibrahim’s landslide victory in his stronghold northern Permatang Pauh constituency is not just a ticket for him to re-enter parliament after years of absence from the political scene, but also represents a crucial gain for the opposition alliance, which has become an increasingly significant force since the general elections in March.
A former deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim can now be formally appointed as leader of the opposition alliance. Ibrahim Suffian, the director of the independent Merdeka Center near Kuala Lumpur, said the poll was “crucial because he [Anwar] needs to go into parliament to solidify his control and manage the Opposition.”
Anwar held the Permatang Pauh seat from 1982 to 99. But he was forced to quit the seat after being accused of corruption and sodomy. Although he denied the charges, he was convicted and imprisoned in 1999.
In 2004, he was released after the Malaysia’s Supreme Court overturned the sodomy charge but he was banned from participating in elections.
However, in March this year, his political career took an upward swing, when a three-party alliance led by his People’s Justice Party secured victory in five of Malaysia’s 13 states, winning 82 of 222 seats in parliament.
They had gained popularity by garnering support from non-ethnic Malays such as Chinese and Indians, who have long accused the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, which has been in power for almost five decades, of giving preference to ethnic Malays.
Whilst Anwar was out of the picture, his wife Wan Azizah Ismail stood in for him and represented the Permatang Pauh constituency for 10 years. But she stepped down in July this year, paving the way for her husband’s return to politics.
Analysts say Anwar’s victory in the by-election -- by such a large margin -- could be a significant setback for the ruling coalition. “The ruling party would have to seriously initiate some reforms in order to recapture votes,” said Suffian.
Overshadowed by sodomy charges
Anwar’s comeback has been overshadowed by another controversy. In June, one of his former male aides accused him of sodomy. Once again, Anwar denies the charge and insists it is aimed at thwarting his political career. An inquiry has been launched and a court hearing is due on Sept. 10. If found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
But experts believe the allegations have had little impact on Anwar’s popularity. A poll conducted in Anwar’s constituency by Ibrahim Suffian’s independent Merdeka Center suggests that nearly 59 percent of the voters think the allegations are politically-motivated.
Asked whether the leader can overcome the charge Suffian said: “That depends on how independent the courts are. If he is a member of parliament, he will attract public attention to the case; and that will put pressure on the Malaysian government to ensure that the court process is conducted fairly.”
Anwar plans to call a vote of confidence in September. But it will not be easy for him to win the vote -- he needs the support of at least 30 MPs from the ruling bloc to topple the government. But if he does secure this support and wins the vote, he is very likely to become Malaysia’s next premier.