Mon, Aug 08, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Anwar becoming the man to watch

COMEBACK The man whom former premier Mahathir tried to destroy with trumped up charges wants to shatter the mold of Malaysia's ethnic-based politics

AFP , KUALA LUMPUR

Anwar Ibrahim is storming back onto Malaysia's political landscape with ambitions to transform the nation's race-based party system, as the centrepiece of a campaign to become prime minister.

The former deputy premier last week took another step towards putting the ugly saga of his sacking and imprisonment behind him, winning damages and an apology from the then-police chief who famously beat him after his 1998 arrest.

Anwar, 57, is legally barred from holding political office until 2008 after being convicted of corruption -- a charge he says was manufactured to prevent him threatening the dominance of his former mentor Mahathir Mohamad.

But he told reporters in an interview that even if the government times the next general elections to ensure he is excluded, a win by the opposition People's Justice Party, led by his wife Wan Azizah, could see him claim the top job.

"If the public, the Malaysian electorate, endorses you, what does it matter whether I contest or not," he said.

His advisers say that if the People's Justice Party, known as Keadilan, established a majority with the support of its allies, it could appoint an interim prime minister until Anwar's ban expired and he contested a by-election.

"It is a decision of the party in power. So if they want my role, then the party has to decide and the people have to back the party," Anwar said.

His inability to stand for office would only make "a difference for a few months," in the event of a Keadilan poll victory, he said.

"Just a few months. If the party wins, then the party will decide."

Despite the brave words, Keadilan suffered a crushing defeat in the 2004 elections and faces a daunting task in unseating the UMNO party which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.

However, Anwar is their best hope for success and after his release from jail last September, thanks to the overturning of a sodomy conviction which was part of the charges against him, he is now emerging from the political wilderness.

Since winning his freedom, Anwar travelled extensively to re-establish his networks both domestically and abroad.

But his frequent trips back to Malaysia, which have seen him address nationwide political rallies with calls for democratic reform, are increasing in momentum and creating waves here, despite media blackouts.

Anwar has emphasisised Keadilan's multi-racial nature -- a rare phenomenon in a political environment where most parties are race-based.

The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is headed by the Malay-based UMNO, with other component parties representing the minority Chinese and Indian communities.

Anwar has argued for dismantling the system, which has led to tension over the privileges granted to Malaysia's indigenous groups, or "bumiputra."

He said that only a multi-racial party can give fair representation to all Malaysians, and ensure economic prosperity across the board.

"Notwithstanding what happens during the elections or after, I think that is the single most important contribution in contemporary times, to break the racial equation and the racial divide which has been exploited by these party leaders," he said.

Anwar, who has ruled out rejoining UMNO, said it was only after completing a recent tour of the nation that he decided to throw in his lot with Keadilan and begin the herculean task of building an alternative government.

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