Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has vowed to seize power from a “corrupt” government at a rally of some 15,000 supporters as he fights back against new sodomy accusations.
In an impassioned speech to a packed stadium Tuesday night, Anwar said it was time to boot out the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition which has governed Malaysia for a half a century since independence from Britain.
“The BN government cannot be trusted to manage the economy of this country because there is too much corruption,” he told the crowd which shouted the opposition battlecry of “Reformasi” or “Reform”.
“Time is up, you get out, let us move in!” Anwar said to loud cheers.
Anwar, a former deputy premier who was sacked a decade ago and spent six years in prison on sodomy and corruption counts, made a stunning return to politics in March elections that dealt the BN an unprecedented setback.
The 60-year-old political maverick said the new accusations of sexual assault by a 23-year-old male aide who volunteered in his office for several months “never happened”.
“I will fight these allegations day and night and I won’t accept defeat over this evil and lies,” he said, adding that his accuser was being manipulated by powerful forces.
“He just became a pawn in their game to attack me. I’m sad that the young boy has ended up in this way.” Sodomy is a criminal offense in this conservative country which is predominantly Muslim.
Anwar has said he is poised to form a government with the help of defecting lawmakers from the ruling coalition, putting intense pressure on Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who faces calls to quit over the polls debacle.
“They are still in a state of denial now that we have wrested so much power from them,” Anwar told the crowd, adding he had evidence that the government was mounting a conspiracy to humiliate him.
“Do you think I am going to be quit? We will fight them.”
The stadium in suburban Kuala Lumpur was decorated with posters showing Anwar with a black eye, inflicted in a severe beating by the police chief shortly after his sacking.
“Don’t let this happen again,” read the caption.
Anwar fled to the Turkish embassy on the weekend, saying he feared for his life after being informed he could be targeted with a government assassination attempt.
He left his refuge on Monday after the government guaranteed his safety, but precautions were tight at the rally and Anwar was led into the hall by a line of security personnel.
He addressed the crowd from a stand that was separated from the crowd by metal barricades, and with a long line of party security personnel lining its perimeter.
Anwar also took aim at the government’s unpopular 41 percent fuel price hike this month, and invited the crowd to take part in a mass anti-inflation rally on July 6 which organisers hope will attract one million people.
“I promise that the day we take power, the very next day oil prices will drop in Malaysia,” he said.
His supporters in the crowd said their faith in the charismatic leader was not shaken by the new scandal.
“All these allegations against Anwar are false and the government is grasping at straws to try and destroy him, but this will not work,” said Adlin Syufikah Ismail.
“The people are 100 percent behind Anwar,” said the 31-year-old marketing executive, dressed in a blue Muslim headscarf and traditional flowing dress.
Jamari Iskandar Shah, a 48-year-old salesman who attended the rally with his wife and two young children, was one of many who said they believed Anwar will be Malaysia’s next prime minister.
“I brought my family so that they could learn the truth about what is happening in this country and so they will know why we need a new government in power,” Jamari said.
“The people are suffering and yet politicians remain rich. This must change and the people must again be the priority and not cronies.”
Sex scandal could galvanise support for Malaysia’s Anwar: analysts
Sodomy claims against Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim could actually galvanise support for the charismatic opposition leader, analysts say, due to the widespread belief they are politically motivated.
The allegations, which Anwar says are a plot to prevent him from seizing power, are a re-run of events of 1998 when he was sacked as deputy prime minister and jailed for six years on sodomy and corruption counts.
Anwar fled to the Turkish embassy in dramatic scenes over the weekend, saying he feared a government assassination attempt after being hit with “fabricated” new accusations by a 23-year-old male aide.
Now he has emerged, promising a showdown with the ruling coalition which he has vowed to topple with the help of defectors, after stunning March elections that handed the opposition a third of parliamentary seats.
Observers say that whatever the truth, the Malaysian public is tired of dirty politics and deeply sceptical of the new claims — a mood that will spell trouble for the government if the case against Anwar collapses.
“If people see there is no credibility with regard to the investigation, the government will be in a very difficult position,” said Mohammad Agus Yusoff, a political analyst with the National University of Malaysia.
“It will be a very dangerous political game if it’s not true.”
The Merdeka Centre research firm conducted a small survey that found just 10 percent of respondents believed the allegations, and nearly 60 percent viewed it as politically motivated.
“This whole episode may have benefited Anwar more than it has damaged his reputation,” said the firm’s pollster Ibrahim Suffian.
The affair could further undermine Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is facing calls to quit after the March elections which were followed by an unpopular fuel price hike that triggered a series of public protests.
“It has some likelihood on backfiring on the government, depending on how they handle it,” Ibrahim said.
The scandal has erupted at a torrid time in Malaysian politics, with Abdullah’s party in disarray after the polls, and his heir apparent deputy premier Najib Razak forced to deny links to the sensational murder of a Mongolian woman.
It also comes as the nation’s justice system is in the spotlight after a number of explosive stories, including a senior judge’s claim that he was sent on an indoctrination “boot camp” to promote pro-government decisions.
Anwar has said he has no confidence in the justice system, after his experiences a decade ago when he was badly beaten by the police chief and appeared in court with a black eye.
Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert from Johns Hopkins University, said the scandal could either delay Anwar’s plans to seize power by casting doubt over his ability to govern, or conversely jump-start his ambitions.
“Him being under attack only inspires more people to come to his defence and to rally around him, because people will potentially see this as an unfair accusation,” she said.
Many observers said the authorities would tread more cautiously this time, after the saga of a decade ago.
The nation’s highest court eventually overturned Anwar’s sex conviction but the episode damaged the nation’s reputation and reverberates to this day.
“I would not expect the Malaysian government to be so foolish as to arrest him again and ignite a groundswell within society,” Welsh said.
“But the reality is is that mistakes often are made… What happens here will decide the path of Malaysia in the future.”