PERMATANG PAUH (Malaysia) – MALAYSIA’S opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim won a landslide victory on Tuesday in a by-election to return him to parliament, and said he was on track to oust a weakened government.

The vote in his home state of Penang cemented a stunning comeback for Anwar, who was sacked as deputy premier a decade ago and jailed on sodomy and corruption charges widely seen as politically motivated.

‘We declare victory, the margin is very huge,’ said Mr Tian Chua, information chief of Anwar’s Keadilan party, which leads a three-member opposition alliance. ‘I think it’s a landslide victory.’

The final tally showed Anwar won 31,195 votes, compared with 15,524 for his opponent from the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has dominated Malaysian politics for half a century.

‘Yes of course we have lost… we were the underdogs going into this race,’ said Mr Muhammad Muhammad Taib, information chief of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which leads the coalition.

Anwar said he had outgunned the government despite a ‘sickening’ campaign that focused on new sodomy allegations against him, and was marred by allegations of vote-buying and electoral fraud.

The opposition has also accused the coalition of attempting to undermine Anwar by stoking tensions between Muslim Malays who dominate the population, and minority ethnic Chinese and Indian citizens.

‘This is a clear indication that people of all races have rejected the communal politics of Barisan Nasional. It is a clear endorsement of our reform agenda. We are on track to take over the government,’ Anwar said.

Anwar had been widely expected to win back his old seat of Permatang Pauh, which his wife held during his political exile. She stood aside last month to allow him to contest, after a ban on him holding public office expired.

However, he defied expectations that the coalition’s no-holds-barred campaign would suppress his winning margin, which is being seen as an indicator of his ability to shrug off the sodomy charges.

‘I thank the voters, the wisdom of the people has prevailed. The win shows the people reject the sodomy allegations thrown at my husband,’ said Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Analysts said that even after he returns to parliament, the charismatic 61-year-old opposition leader faces further daunting hurdles including a looming trial on the new sexual misconduct charges.

The opposition leader has said the accusations, levelled by a 23-year-old male aide, have been concocted by the government to thwart his ambitions of seizing power with the help of defecting lawmakers.

His original sodomy conviction was overturned by the nation’s highest court in 2004, allowing him to go free after spending six years in jail.

He then spent several years behind the scenes, before storming back onto the political stage at the helm of a reinvigorated opposition.

In March general elections, the opposition alliance seized control of five states and a third of parliamentary seats – an unprecedented result that shook the coalition and put Anwar within striking distance of taking power.

He needs to secure the support of at least 30 defectors in order to oust the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has faced calls to quit after the general elections debacle.

The ballot in Permatang Pauh was held under tight security, after both sides traded allegations of abuse and attacks on their supporters. Some 4,500 police were deployed to keep the peace.

Despite the focus on the sodomy allegations, Anwar’s star power was undimmed, and he drew big crowds to nightly rallies during the intense 10-day campaign. — AFP

Photo: Anwar Ibrahim