KUALA LUMPUR?Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim Thursday took his place as a member of Malaysia?s Parliament, a major step in his goal to topple the incumbent government that has been weakened by electoral defeats and internal dissent.
By rejoining Parliament, Anwar has resurrected his dream to become prime minister a decade after he was charged with sodomy and his career written off.
Dressed in a dark-blue traditional Malay shirt, pants and cap, Anwar was sworn in as a member of Parliament in a simple ceremony amid loud thumping of desks by opposition members. He was also formally declared the leader of the combined opposition in Parliament.
?I am glad to be back after a decade. I really feel vindicated. I feel great,? said Anwar, who is once again facing a sodomy accusation. Anwar has dismissed the latest charge as a ?sickening? government conspiracy to prevent his rise to power.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and most Cabinet ministers from the ruling National Front coalition were not present during Anwar?s swearing-in.
Anwar will face the current government leaders and other colleagues-turned-foes on Friday when Abdullah presents the annual budget?a job Anwar used to handle as finance minister and deputy prime minister in the early 1990s.
Fall from power
At that time, Anwar was a rising star in the National Front, the heir apparent to then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But they had a falling out over policy differences during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. On Sept. 2, 1998, Mahathir fired Anwar from the Cabinet.
He was soon charged with corruption and sodomizing his family driver. He was convicted on both charges and forced to resign his seat in Parliament. Anwar spent six years in jail, where he was beaten by police, while his supporters carried on street protests for weeks.
The sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004 but the corruption conviction prevented him from contesting the general elections in March. A special election was held on Tuesday after his wife vacated her seat, which she had held for two terms during Anwar?s political exile.
Anwar regained the seat, which he had represented from 1982 until he was forced to resign, in a landslide victory. His triumph came on the heels of big gains by the opposition in the March general elections that loosened the governing National Front?s 51-year grip on power.
The National Front returned to power with a simple majority of 140 seats in the 222-member Parliament. But Anwar?s People?s Alliance coalition increased its strength from 19 to 82 seats, needing only 30 more to form a government.
Anwar?s victory is a ?second political tsunami. The government is a Titanic that will sink,? said Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party, a component of the opposition alliance.
Anwar said the alliance remained on track to topple the government by Sept. 16 with defections from the National Front. If he succeeds, he will lead the first opposition-led government in Malaysia, which has been ruled continuously by the National Front coalition since independence in 1957.
?Anwar?whatever we think of him and many of us are deeply skeptical?is looking more and more like our future Prime Minister,? columnist Karim Raslan wrote in The Star daily on Thursday.
?There is a mounting sense of inevitability to his impending succession,? he wrote.
But significant hurdles remain, the biggest of them the new criminal charge that he sodomized a 23-year-old male aide. A court will hear his case on Sept. 10 to set a date for the trial. Under Malaysian law, even consensual sodomy is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
A recent opinion poll indicated that most Malaysians think the charge is politically motivated.
Besides the challenge from Anwar, the prime minister is also facing internal opposition.
Abdullah under fire
Veteran government lawmaker Razaleigh Hamzah, who wants to challenge Abdullah for the party leadership, said Anwar?s victory meant that ?what scraps of credibility (Abdullah) had left? were gone.
Mohamad, the former prime minister, said, ?Abdullah must take responsibility and resign now.?
His lawmaker son Mukhriz Mahathir also said that with Anwar in Parliament, ?we cannot afford to have a weak leadership because it could lead to our downfall.?
Abdullah rejected the calls.
?I believe we can still continue the government,? Abdullah was quoted as saying by the Bernama national news agency.