Malaysian opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim cannot vote in what he believes will be a “defining election” for his country on Wednesday, but even from his prison cell has remained a political force to be reckoned with.
The firebrand politician’s conviction in 2015 for what he and his supporters said were false allegations of sodomy fractured the alliance of opposition parties that under Anwar’s leadership was threatening the ruling National Front’s decades-long hold on power.
It was Anwar’s second spell in prison and it seemed he would finally been done in by dirty political tactics.
Once a high-flier in the ruling party, he was in 1998 convicted of sodomy — a criminal offense in Muslim-majority Malaysia inherited from the British colonial era — and corruption following a power struggle with then-Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad.
However, Anwar played an unexpected card. From prison he helped forge a new opposition alliance by ending the two-decade feud with his former persecutor-in-chief, Mahathir, who had once called Anwar “morally unfit” to govern the country.
It was a difficult, but pragmatic decision, Anwar’s eldest daughter, Malaysian lawmaker Nurul Izzah Anwar, told reporters.
Anwar, 70, is an “incorrigible optimist” who believes there must be sacrifices to bring about a change of government and badly needed reforms, she said.
“He was instrumental in galvanizing an eventual approval to get Mahathir to be part of our coalition,” Nurul Izzah said. “He was the first to state that it’s time for us to be actively playing our part to design the Malaysia that we want.”
Mahathir, 92, leads an opposition alliance that includes Anwar’s party.
They are campaigning to oust Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is mired in scandal, and end the National Front’s unbroken 60-year rule.
Even with Mahathir, who is popular with Malaysia’s Malay majority, the odds are stacked against the opposition.
It won the popular vote in 2013, but the ruling party clung to a majority in parliament because of an electoral system that gives more weight to Malay-dominated rural seats that support the government.
A popular Muslim student leader, Anwar joined the ruling Malay party in 1982, a year after Mahathir became prime minister.
He quickly rose up the ranks, becoming minister of finance in 1991 and deputy prime minister two years later.
Anwar became the heir apparent to Mahathir, but they fell out during the 1998 Asian financial crisis and Anwar was sacked.
He refused to go quietly, leading tens of thousands of demonstrators in street rallies in Kuala Lumpur demanding reforms before he was arrested.
He was later produced in court with a black eye from a beating by the police chief. That black eye has become the logo of the People’s Justice Party led by his wife and is now the symbol of the opposition challenge against Najib.
Anwar was freed in 2004 after Mahathir retired and cleared of the sodomy charges.
In 2008 elections, his opposition pact, known as the People’s Alliance, made major inroads by depriving the National Front of a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time.
In 2013, the National Front lost the popular vote, its worst result since independence from Britain in 1957. It holds 132 of 222 seats.
However, in 2015, Anwar was imprisoned again after new allegations of sodomizing an aide that he and his supporters said was a government plot to crush the opposition.
“Authoritarian leaders always believe the best way to deal with dissidents is to jail them, but throughout history, it has always backfired,” Anwar said at the time.
His opposition alliance broke up after its Muslim ally left. It regrouped as the Alliance of Hope, but the pact was shaky due to infighting and the lack of a charismatic figure to hold it together day to day.
Mahathir’s political comeback in 2016 provided the missing glue. Despite his advanced age, Mahathir was seen as the best chance for the opposition to win support from rural Malays.
The former prime minister was spurred out of retirement by the corruption scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a state fund that is being investigated by the US and several other countries after associates of Najib allegedly stole and laundered US$4.5 billion from it.
The fund was set up by Najib in 2009 to promote economic growth, but accumulated billions in debts.
In September 2016, Mahathir met Anwar for the first time in 18 years. Social media was awash with pictures of the two men shaking hands and chatting in court, where Anwar was challenging a repressive new security law.
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