PERMATANG PAUH, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia’s best-known opposition politician, Anwar Ibrahim, scored a bigger than expected victory in a by-election on Tuesday, boosting his chances of becoming the country’s next prime minister.
Anwar, whose campaign for the parliamentary seat vacated by his wife has been dogged by charges of sodomy, won a majority of 15,671 over his government opponent.
He said he would initiate a vote to topple the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for five decades.
“The message is clear, we in Permatang Pauh and in Malaysia, we demand change for freedom and justice,” Anwar told a jubilant crowd of thousands of people gathered in a football stadium who were chanting “reformasi” (reform) and “merdeka” (freedom).
“We want an independent judiciary, we want the economy to benefit the vast majority not the corrupt few,” Anwar, who was wearing a colorful batik shirt, told the cheering crowd.
Political analysts had said that the man who was once a rising star in the government and is now seeking to oust it from power had needed to win by at least the 13,388 majority his wife won when she contested the seat in March’s general election.
That Anwar won by much more gives him a real shot at tempting the 30 government legislators to join his three-party coalition and that will enable him to win power in a confidence vote that he has said he will call for September.
“I think he feels he has to ride the momentum and given what he has experienced over the past few weeks, he will be more convinced than ever that he has to do that,” said Ooi Kee Beng, a Malaysian expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Anwar’s meteoric rise to power ended abruptly when he was imprisoned in the late 1990s on what he says were trumped up sodomy and corruption charges.
He will again appear in court on September 10 and denies the new sodomy charges made by a 23-year-old male aide.
Anwar says that if he wins power he will sweep away economic and social privileges for ethnic Malays in education and the civil service, policies that he endorsed when in power, but which he now says have damaged the economy and the people they were supposed to help.
While the Barisan Nasional government looks rudderless and divided, Anwar at least has real economic policies and a vision for the nation, political analysts said.
“I would at least say that he has a vision of what the future economy should look like, he has a roadmap,” said Yang Razali Kassim Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.
“Given the paucity of ideas in BN, Anwar comes across as an appealing leader, with the experience to boot,” Kassim said of the man who was once a liberal-minded finance minister.
Whether nervous investors who have pushed down the Malaysian ringgit and the stock market share those views is another matter however and many are concerned that there could be a prolonged period of political instability.
The candidate for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition had conceded earlier, although he had expected to win the by-election.
“I thought that people would vote get their problems solved but they seemed more attracted to propaganda, promises and innuendo from the opposition,” said Arif Shah.
The defeat is expected to open more wounds in the ruling coalition, still reeling from a March general election when it lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority the a resurgent and united opposition.
“The BN has been rattled enough by the March 8 elections. Some parties in the ruling coalition have been threatening to quit the BN. Talk of defections may turn to reality now,” said Kassim, who expects Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to be replaced.
Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz, Jahabar Sadiq and David Chance; Writing by David Chance, Editing by Giles Elgood