For nearly two decades, Anwar Ibrahim was the favorite son of this parliamentary district. He rose in public life to the rank of deputy prime minister – a leader in waiting – until a power struggle saw him tossed into jail in 1998 on charges of sodomy (a crime in Malaysia) that were later quashed.
On Tuesday, Mr. Anwar won back his parliamentary seat in a by-election, sealing a remarkable political comeback and putting Malaysia's emboldened opposition closer to its goal of taking power. Anwar received 31,195 votes, beating his top rival's 15,524 for the seat vacated by his wife Wan Azizah, who had held it since 1999.
As opposition leader in parliament, Anwar claims he can persuade enough lawmakers to cross sides so as to bring down the government, which saw its support crumble in national elections in March. Such a move would shake the foundations of coalition politics in a democracy that is fissured along ethnic and religious lines. Anwar has said a vote of no confidence in the government could come as early as next month.
So far, the political jockeying in Malaysia has been largely orderly. However, in an echo of events in 1998, Anwar was recently charged with allegedly sodomizing a young aide.
If found guilty, he stands to lose his parliamentary seat and face another jail term. He and his supporters say the charges are false and politically motivated. Malaysian media have carried photos of the aide posing with deputy prime minister Najib Razak, an archrival of Anwar.
In recent weeks, Mr. Razak and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi have both campaigned in this normally sleepy rural district, underscoring their determination to thwart Anwar's comeback. But their support apparently failed to persuade voters. Nor did repeated talk of sodomy and homosexuality – sinful concepts to Malay-Muslims. Many voters are dismissive of the charges, reflecting national skepticism seen in opinion polls.
That sets up a potential clash with the court that must decide in two weeks whether to proceed with a trial. Malaysia's judiciary has been tarnished by a scandal over political interference and bribery in the selection of judges.
"I hope he will get a fair trial. We really need a change in Malaysia," said Khairul Ismail as he left a polling booth.
On the streets of Sebarang Jaya, the main town in the by-election district, rival party supporters yelled slogans and traded insults, separated by riot police who were deployed in large numbers on polling day. But there were no reports of fighting, and local politicians played down concerns of violence.
In 1969, deadly race riots shook Malaysia after an election setback for ethnic-Malay parties. That violence spurred the creation of an affirmative action program for Malays and other indigenous groups. Anwar, one of its beneficiaries, has vowed to overhaul the program if he takes power. That promise is popular with ethnic Indian and Chinese, who want equal opportunities in education and jobs and are alarmed by the strengthened hand of Islamic courts in civil law cases. But opponents have accused Anwar of betraying the Malays, the country's largest ethnic group.
By targeting the New Economic Policy, as the program is known, Anwar took a gamble that Malay voters would recognize its flaws, says Khoo Boo Teik, a political scientist at the Universiti Sains Malaysia. "Anwar pushed the message that removing the NEP doesn't mean removing assistance from deserving and needy people, especially the Malays," he says.
At the same time, Anwar has tried to build his Justice Party as a youthful multi-ethnic organization that cuts across social lines, while allying himself with a Chinese-oriented party and PAS, a conservative Islamic party.
The strain in the coalition has shown, though, and the United Malays National Organization, the dominant party in government, has tried to tempt PAS away from Anwar into its own camp.
"Elsewhere people talk of a two-party system. Here we have many parties. The question in Malaysia is whether you can have a second coalition," says Professor Khoo.
A former Muslim youth leader who counts former US Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz among his friends, Anwar has played on anger over rising fuel costs and stagnant wages. Gas prices rose by an average of 43 percent in June, a move that has helped the opposition's pitch.