KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim is expected to earn a seat in parliament at a by-election this week, but it is far from clear that he can fulfill his dream of throwing out the government and becoming prime minister himself.
Even if Anwar overcomes what his party says is one of the dirtiest and most racist election campaigns in years, analysts say he could struggle to woo enough defectors to unseat the ruling coalition that has ruled Malaysia since 1957.
Anwar has promised to bring widespread reforms, including in judiciary and governance, and take urgent measures to boost the economy and shield the ordinary people from rising prices.
“The election results will affect his momentum, whether he can move forward or not,” said Bridget Welsh, an expert on Malaysian politics at Johns Hopkins University.
“It is pivotal he has to be in the parliament because it will change the dynamics. A victory will be a step in the process.”
Government leaders played down the prospects, saying that there were no immediate signs that any of their 140 lawmakers would jump ship to Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat alliance.
He needs a sizeable 30 defectors to unseat the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, a level many say a near impossible despite cracks within the 14-party coalition following a March general elections.
Anwar has insisted that his goal of forming a new government by September 16 was still on track, unfazed by a sodomy charge and a by-election onslaught.
“Anwar will win with a good majority,” said political analyst Yahya Ismail. “People want Anwar to be in parliament and then become the prime minister.”
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s coalition has waged a concerted campaign, including alleged vote-buying and launching personal attacks, to deny Anwar a win.
The uncertainty about the government’s future has alarmed some foreign investors, wary about a sudden shift in government. The key share index has lost about 25 percent this year.
Abdullah has moved to allay some of the fears, saying that his strong government would last until the next general elections due by 2013. He himself has said he would quit in mid-2010.
“It does not matter to me whether he wins or loses. As far as I am concerned, I have my government to look after... Whatever the opposition members want to do, that is up to them,” he was quoted as saying by the New Sunday Times newspaper.
The charge that Anwar had sex with a 23-year-old male aide has dogged his campaign from the start.
“The interplay of politics and religion has never been more in play than here in Permatang Pauh,” columnist Joceline Tan wrote in the Star newspaper on Sunday.
“It (the sodomy charge) has moved to centre stage now that the campaign is moving to its grand finale.”
On the eve of the official election campaign, Anwar’s sodomy accuser emerged from hiding to swear on the Koran in a bid analysts say to undermine Anwar’s credibility.
“This has some negative impact on Anwar,” said Rita Sim, deputy head of a think tank linked to a ruling party in Barisan. Some fence-sitters, including staunch Muslims, may have been swayed by the swearing, analysts said.
Pre-empting Anwar’s promise to slash fuel prices if he wins power, Abdullah on Friday announced a surprise cut in petrol and diesel prices to help appease popular anger.
Adding to his dismay, the authorities hauled up several top politicians in opposition-held Perak state last week for suspected graft.
Anwar has also been the target of a government smear campaign, accusing him of being anti-Malay and a foreign agent. Ethnic Malays form 70 percent of about 59,000 eligible voters in Permatung Pauh.
Editing by Faisal Aziz and David Fox