Sat, Sep 11, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Freed Malaysian politician making quick comeback


Released from prison barely a week ago, Anwar Ibrahim is already carefully elbowing his way back into Malaysian politics -- and being spoken of as a potential future prime minister.

Even as he languished behind bars for six years following a failed power challenge, Anwar remained the most charismatic politician of his generation and was never truly written off in scenarios about the country's future.

But he returned faster than many expected when Malaysia's highest court freed him on Sept. 2 after overturning his conviction for sodomy six years after then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked him as deputy leader.

The court is scheduled to rule Sept. 15 whether to overturn a separate conviction for corruption. If successful, Anwar would have a clean record and would skirt the law requiring convicted felons to wait five-years before running for office or holding party posts.

Anwar's choice then would be delicate. One option would be to lead a disparate opposition that includes the small National Justice Party headed by his wife, Azizah Ismail, and Islamic fundamentalists with whom he enjoys close links from his days as a student firebrand.

Or he could to maneuver back into the ruling United National Malays Organization (UMNO), the road to power in this country, where he was deputy leader before Mahathir ousted him.

"Many Malays see Anwar as prime minister material, and that includes those in UMNO," said political analyst Lutfi Omar. "And everyone accepts that you have to be in UMNO to have a shot at being prime minister."

Anwar has kept both doors open in calibrated remarks since his release, insisting that he will keep pushing for democratic reforms -- reformasi, his rallying cry -- in the opposition while reaching out to supportive members of UMNO.

For now, Anwar, 57, is expected to remain in Germany for several weeks undergoing physical therapy following back surgery, then make a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, before returning to Malaysia for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Anwar's back was injured during a police beating after his arrest in 1998 for leading mass protests calling for Mahathir's ouster.

The corruption and sodomy convictions came later, and Anwar contended that he was a victim of a judicial conspiracy orchestrated by Mahathir to keep him down.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who came to power 10 months ago after Mahathir retired, is considered a moderate figure and is believed to have given the courts more leeway to decide Anwar's fate.

Abdullah is also a highly skilled political infighter. Having led UMNO to a general election landslide in March, he'll preside over a party congress later this month to cement his control over the party.

Anwar probably poses little threat to Abdullah, but his presence could make the party's current deputy and potential future prime minister, Najib Razak, and others climbing the party ranks uneasy.

"I don't think Anwar is going to bite the hand which basically gave him his freedom," a close confidant of Anwar's said on condition of anonymity. "Malays would consider this akin to treason."

But Anwar is re-emerging into a changed Malaysia. Though he still pulls in crowds -- the thousands of supporters who brought Kuala Lumpur's airport to a halt to see him off to Germany raised eyebrows among security officials -- he will need to find a message that resonates.

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