He is the man many Malaysians love to hate. Once considered his nation’s political tour de force, Anwar Ibrahim has spent the greater part of the past two decades in jail, wrapped up in court proceedings and enduring what he calls a long-standing smear campaign — from being labeled a chauvinist and Zionist to facing accusations that he is homosexual, guilty of sodomy and anti-Muslim.
Now Anwar is fighting his last fight: to be Malaysia’s next prime minister, a battle for which he has been preparing for a very long time.
At speeches and rallies Anwar is vibrant, compelling and persuasive. In person he is slight, aging and soft-spoken, sipping black tea with honey as he outlines why his opposition alliance expects to usurp Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and the incumbent Barisan Nasional (National Front) party, which has governed Malaysia for nearly 60 years.
“The mood is there, the mood for change,” Anwar said from his office at the multifloor headquarters of his People’s Justice party in central Kuala Lumpur. “I’m very optimistic that we will wrest control and make major inroads.”
Anwar has long been a contender to rule Malaysia, but his political career has suffered vertiginous highs and lows. The spectacular ascent that saw him grace the cover of Newsweek as Asian of the Year and become the heir apparent of Malaysia’s then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad was met with an equally spectacular crash in 1998, when the two fell out and Anwar was imprisoned for six years on corruption and sodomy charges, claims he repeatedly dismissed as politically motivated.
Times have not been easy since his release in 2004. Despite leading an opposition coalition to a famous result in the 2008 general election, when it stole one-third of the parliamentary seats and five states from the National Front, Anwar soon found himself facing new sodomy charges, accusations that were only dismissed this January due to lack of evidence.
However, his movement is full of hope. Elections are expected to be called any time in the next nine months and even those who do not openly back Anwar often support what he stands for: relief from an autocratic and out-of-touch government they say has ruled Malaysia for too long. In April, tens of thousands of Malaysians took to the nation’s streets to demand electoral reform at rallies organized by Bersih, an opposition-backed coalition of civil society groups whose name means “clean” in Malay.
According to political columnist Art Harun, Bersih has thrown “a massive spanner in the [government] works” as increasingly informed activists point to numerous corruption scandals and police brutality as proof that government reform is necessary. Yet when it comes to voting they will have to contend with a determined ruling party that has been accused of playing dirty to win.
“The electoral roll is our Achilles’ heel and their way of winning,” said opposition MP and Anwar’s 31-year-old daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar, herself a participant in April’s rally. “Before it was just small instances ... Now we’ve unearthed a whole pool of data.”
She claims that in her constituency alone she has 10,000 voters who suddenly “appeared” on electoral lists.
Anwar’s greatest task will be proving that he can actually instigate the change Malaysians have long been calling for, said Malaysia expert Bridget Welsh of Singapore Management University.